Peaceful protesters in southern Iraq and Baghdad fear authorities are deliberately disabling internet access before security forces attack and open fire on them, Amnesty International has learned.
Trusted sources told the organization they believe internet access is being cut off to prevent them sharing footage and pictures of the excessive and unnecessary force used by security forces, including the use of live ammunition, in cities in the southern governorates of the country, especially Basra.
“We are closely monitoring the escalating situation across southern Iraq and are extremely worried by reports that security forces are beating, arbitrarily detaining and even opening fire on peaceful protesters,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“Deliberately disabling the internet is a sinister restriction to the right to freedom of expression and strongly indicates that the authorities have something to hide. We fear this blackout is deliberately designed to give carte blanche to the security forces to repress peaceful activists without being recorded and held accountable.”
One source in Baghdad told Amnesty International: “When there is no internet, people are being beaten and killed because we can’t upload it. Iraqis now know the value of social media. We need it to raise our voice.”
One 21-year-old man from al-Zubeir, to the west of Basra city, told Amnesty International he joined a demonstration on Sunday 15 July to protest against the ongoing lack of job opportunities in the area. He said a member of the Iraqi SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) forces confronted the protesters and started firing at them before chasing and beating them.
He said: “They wanted to beat everyone and left no one without injury. One person was shot in the leg and I saw one person bleeding from his eye. As we retreated, one of them [SWAT] grabbed me and one beat me. When I struggled away, he threw the baton at me and broke my arm. They cut off the internet so they can beat us.”
Another human rights activist in Baghdad said: “This is now about more than water and electricity – they are breaking us. They are insulting us. Is there anything worse than being taken, beaten and broken, and thrown on the street? We did not call for violence. We are peaceful.”
In the past week, witnesses in Basra governorate have reported to Amnesty International that security forces have been using tear gas and live ammunition against peaceful protesters. At least eight people are reported to have died in protests so far, according to the Iraqi Health Ministry. Witnesses also reported peaceful protesters being beaten with batons, cables and plastic hoses in attempts to disperse them.
In Baghdad on Monday 16 July, according to information obtained by Amnesty International, two protesters were arrested at around 8pm as they were leaving the demonstrations in the centre of the city. They were taken by armed men in civilian clothes who told them, “We are from the authorities”.
The protesters were dragged into a car before being blindfolded and taken to an unknown location. Later, they were beaten, tasered and interrogated about individuals who had organized the protests and asked if they belonged to extremist groups. Unable to see after their ordeal, they were subsequently forced to sign papers without being told what the contents were, and then released.
“Iraqi authorities must immediately put an end to the torture and other ill-treatment that has included beatings, harassment and intimidation of peaceful protesters by security forces and carry out prompt, independent and impartial investigations to bring all those responsible to justice. The authorities have a duty to ensure that everyone in the country can exercise their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful protest without interference,” said Lynn Maalouf.
Protests in Iraq erupted on Sunday 8 July over high levels of unemployment and inadequate government services across the south of the country. The Iraqi Ministry of Defence have reported that an estimated 274 security force members have been wounded in protests to date.
The internet was cut late at night on Thursday 12 July. Although access was mostly restored on Monday 16 July, the signal reportedly remains weak across the country and several social media platforms remain blocked.