State-affiliated armed actors targeted, threatened, abducted and extrajudicially executed dissidents and activists as well as their families, leading survivors to flee into hiding. Iraqi authorities arrested and prosecuted individuals for some of these attacks, but tens of people remained disappeared. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) cracked down on dissent and sentenced activists and journalists under national security and cybercrime laws for acts related to freedom of expression. KRG security and intelligence forces violently dispersed and arrested protesters. Measures to contain Covid-19, coupled with droughts, adversely affected the economic welfare of Iraqis. Armed actors continued to obstruct internally displaced people from accessing their human rights, and Iraqi authorities closed all but two camps and subjected thousands to secondary displacement and collective punishment. Gender-based violence increased dramatically during the pandemic, and central and regional authorities failed to address protection of women and girls in the home. The armed group Islamic State continued to target and kill civilians and members of Iraqi security forces in northern and central Iraq. Courts in Iraq continued to hand down death sentences for a range of criminal acts and carried out executions.
Humanitarian actors reported significant community transmission of Covid-19 throughout the country, but Iraqi authorities opted for restrictive measures such as curfews, restricted hours and closing shopping centres instead of full lockdowns due to the adverse impact on the economic welfare of Iraqis.
The initial results of parliamentary elections on 10 October were disputed after factions of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) militias – which are affiliated to the central authorities and were designated as part of the Iraqi armed forces in 2016 – disputed the results in which they lost 48 seats. They cited voter fraud, vote tampering, “foreign interference” and made threats of violence against election committee staff and independent monitors. On 24 October, at least 1,500 supporters of these factions attempted to storm the International Zone (Green Zone) in the capital Baghdad but were stopped by Iraqi security forces. In response, a manual recount of votes was conducted. On 5 November, supporters of the factions again attempted to storm the Green Zone and clashed with security forces, leaving at least two people dead and over 100 injured. In apparent retaliation, three drone attacks were carried out on Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s home on 7 November; no one was killed. Iraq’s Supreme Court upheld the election results on 27 December but a new government had not been formed by the end of the year.
In Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KR-I), rocket attacks on the airport where US personnel are based, and on the US embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone, were attributed to PMU factions.
Hundreds of families returned to Iraq from Syria; they had fled the country during the conflict involving Islamic State.
Turkey increased air attacks on areas in the KR-I, mainly in Duhok and Erbil governorates, targeting the Kurdistan Workers Party.
In November and December, heavy rainfall caused flash floods, destroying at least hundreds of homes in Erbil, displacing thousands of people and killing at least seven.
Extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances
In several southern governorates, armed actors, including PMU members, extrajudicially killed or attempted to kill tens of activists who rose to prominence during protests that began in October 2019 against government corruption and for improved job opportunities and public services. Most victims were killed late at night, often as they were returning home from protests, mainly by armed men on motorcycles or in vehicles with blacked-out side windows. Shots were usually fired at the head or chest.
In July, the authorities announced the arrest of one suspected perpetrator of these killings but no further information was provided. In October and November, relying on the 2005 Anti-Terrorism Law, courts sentenced to death individuals who had been convicted of targeting and killing activists and journalists in Baghdad and Basra in 2019 and 2020. However, beyond the limited information provided on these cases, no further information was given, including as to whether any steps were taken to provide redress to any of the victims’ families.
PMU members also threatened activists and their families with violence and in some cases extrajudicially executed people. Jaseb Hattab, the father of human rights lawyer Ali Jaseb who was forcibly disappeared by a PMU faction in Amarah city in south-east Iraq in October 2019, was killed in March in retaliation for his campaign for justice for his son.
Members of security forces and PMU factions threatened activists and their families with violence in Baghdad and the southern cities of Basra, Nasriya and Diwaniya, forcing tens of individuals to flee into hiding. A local monitoring group reported that in Basra, security forces had tortured at least three activists to death in detention in July and August.
The fate of tens of activists and protesters abducted by unidentified gunmen and PMU members in 2019 and 2020 remained unknown.
Freedom of expression
The KRG used national security reasons to justify systematically targeting critics, journalists, human rights defenders and other civil society activists through prosecutions. KRG security forces arbitrarily arrested tens of people for social media posts, news articles or reporting on demonstrations.
In February, a court in Erbil sentenced five activists and journalists to six years’ imprisonment each for acts related to their use of social media and journalistic work, deeming these to be prejudicial to the security and sovereignty of the KR-I. All were charged under laws – including National Security Law 2003, the Law to Prevent the Misuse of Telecommunications Equipment and Articles 430-433 of the Penal Code – that criminalize vaguely defined actions that are not internationally recognized as crimes. The trial was marred by serious violations of fair trial standards, including convictions based on statements or “confessions” extracted under duress, failure to provide in a timely manner the case documents to defence lawyers, and failure to order investigations into the defendants’ claims of torture. The KRG denied in a letter to Amnesty International that the convictions were related to the individuals’ work as journalists, but Amnesty International’s review of the evidence on which they were convicted found that it consisted entirely of social media messaging for journalistic work.
Freedom of assembly
Protests continued throughout 2021 even though the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted and subdued many of them.
By April, KRG security forces had arrested over 100 individuals in the Badinan area in north-west Duhok governorate for taking part in protests against government corruption and non-payment of civil servants’ salaries, including those of teachers and health workers. Many were released shortly after arrest, but dozens remained detained at the end of the year. KRG authorities also issued arrest warrants for relatives of activists and critics, leading many to flee their home towns with their families. Between late November and early December, security forces in Sulaimaniya governorate in the KR-I responded to student protesters with tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and live ammunition, killing at least eight protesters.
In February, KRG security forces and Parastin intelligence forces (a branch of the security forces under the sole command of the leading political party in the KRG) arrested dozens of people protesting outside the UN office in Erbil to demand the release of their relatives. All of those arrested were held for seven to 10 hours in crowded cells with no access to food or water.1
Between January and May, Iraqi security forces in Nasriya, Babylon and Najaf used excessive force, including tear gas and live ammunition, to disperse protesters demanding the release of activists and justice for others who were killed and injured in the context of the protests.
Economic, social and cultural rights
Iraq ranked among the countries worst hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, registering over 2 million cases by the end of the year. In March, the country rolled out its national vaccination plan, which identified priority groups including health workers, front line security forces, older people and the internally displaced. However, execution of the plan was slow and badly organized, except in relation to internally displaced people as this was overseen by humanitarian organizations. This, combined with vaccine hesitancy and some people paying for vaccines outside the plan, led to fluctuating rates of vaccination. By the end of the year, just over 20% of the population had received two doses of the vaccine.
Measures to contain Covid-19 such as movement restrictions and lockdowns adversely impacted the economic welfare of families, including increased levels of unemployment and acute poverty. The pandemic also compounded the effects of the lowest rainfall witnessed in Iraq in four decades that, together with extended electricity blackouts, especially in Erbil, Baghdad and several towns and cities in the south of Iraq, increased food insecurity and shortages of drinking water, triggering further protests in these areas.
Fires broke out in the Covid-19 wing of a hospital in Baghdad in April and in a hospital in the southern city of Nasiriya in July, leading to tens of deaths and injuries in both hospitals. The fires were attributed to mismanagement of oxygen tanks that exploded, and were followed by protests demanding an end to corruption.
Internally displaced people’s rights
By the end of March, Iraqi authorities had closed and consolidated all camps for the internally displaced, leaving only one operating in Ninewa and one in Anbar, while 26 camps remained open in the KR-I. The move by the central authorities rendered thousands of internally displaced women, men and children homeless or in secondary displacement, and without access to housing and essential services such as healthcare and education. At the end of the year, over 1 million people remained displaced.
In the last pushes to close camps in February and March, Iraqi security forces threatened and forced internally displaced people to evacuate camps in Ninewa without specifying where they should go, while banning their return to anywhere outside their home governorate. Internally displaced people returning to their home areas continued to face blocks, evictions and confiscation and destruction of their homes due to their perceived affiliation to Islamic State. Security forces deliberately denied them the right to access civil status documents, vital for freedom of movement as well as access to healthcare and educational services.
PMU fighters prevented thousands of internally displaced people from returning to their areas of origin in Jurf al-Sakhr, south of Baghdad, citing alleged “Islamic State sympathizing” as a reason. Notably, in May, a PMU leader in Diyala governorate called for the forced displacement of Sunni returnees following several Islamic State attacks.
In late October, Iraqi authorities reported that at least 227 families had been displaced from their village in Diyala governorate. This took place after individuals in cars marked with PMU insignia attacked the village, setting several buildings on fire in what appeared to be retaliation for an Islamic State attack earlier in the month that killed at least 11 people. Iraqi authorities allocated financial aid to the affected families, but this did not lead to returns. By the first week of November, the number of displaced families had reached 300 as PMU commanders called for the implementation of “the Jurf al-Sakhr example”.
Gender-based violence in the domestic and public spheres increased, according to international and national NGOs. In March, a women’s rights international NGO estimated that during Covid-19 lockdowns, the prevalence of gender-based violence increased by at least 75% across Iraq. There was also a rise in child marriages precipitated by the deteriorating economic situation.
While central Iraqi and KRG authorities arrested some men who had killed or abused their female relatives, both authorities failed to take adequate steps to address the full scale of the violations, or the sharp rise in gender-based domestic violence during lockdowns. The Iraqi parliament also failed to prioritize passing a law to combat domestic violence despite mounting pressure and advocacy from civil society.
Unknown assailants subjected female candidates running for Iraq’s parliamentary elections in October to smear campaigns and threats of violence, and destroyed and defaced their campaign materials with impunity.
Abuses by armed groups
Throughout the year, Islamic State carried out serious human rights abuses in several governorates, notably Kirkuk, Diyala, Salah al-Din, Ninewa and Anbar. These included deliberate attacks on civilians, abductions and summary killings of captives, use of improvised explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenades to target civilians, firing at civilians, and setting agricultural land on fire.
Iraqi authorities completed the excavation of a mass grave in Anbar governorate and identified the victims as individuals who Islamic State had summarily killed in 2014.
Courts continued to hand down death sentences in cases of individuals suspected of links to Islamic State or of extrajudicially killing activists, and for offences related to the use and distribution of prohibited substances, kidnappings and assassinations.