• Press Release

Protest Death Toll in Iraq Surges as Security Forces Resume Brutal Repression

January 23, 2020

Iraqi youths block a street leading to Baghdadh's al-Tayaran square after the funeral of Yussef Sattar, a local journalist and activist who was reportedly killed earlier this week while covering anti-government demonstrations, in the Iraqi capital on January 21, 2020. (Photo by Ayman HENNA / AFP) (Photo by AYMAN HENNA/AFP via Getty Images)
  • Death toll exceeds 600 since October with 12 reported killings this week alone
  • Verified resumed use of live ammunition and deadly ‘smoker’ grenades to kill protesters
  • Ongoing wave of intimidation, arrests and torture

Chilling eyewitness testimonies and verified video analysis by Amnesty International confirm that security forces have resumed their campaign of deadly violence against largely peaceful protesters in Baghdad and cities in southern Iraq, the organization warned today.

The crackdown on renewed protests from January 20-22 saw at least 10 people killed in Baghdad, Basra, Karbala and Diyala, according to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, while activists in Basra reported two additional deaths yesterday. Scores have been injured and arrested, with some subjected to torture and other ill-treatment in custody.

The organization’s Crisis Evidence Lab verified videos from several flashpoints in recent days, confirming live ammunition is once again being used against unarmed protesters, and the first use of deadly military-grade tear gas grenades observed since November.

“This worrying evidence signals that the Iraqi security forces have resumed their lethal campaign of repression against protesters who are simply exercising their rights to freedom of expression and to peaceful assembly. This latest escalation is a clear indication that the Iraqi authorities have no intention whatsoever to genuinely put an end to these grave violations,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director.

“The use of lethal force to silence dissent must stop immediately. The authorities have had months to change course away from violent repression. Protesters have a right to expect that the security forces protect – not arbitrarily kill and maim – them.”

Live ammunition fired

Two young men interviewed by Amnesty International described chilling scenes on January 21 along the Mohammed al-Qasim highway overpass in Baghdad, around 1.2 km north-east of Tahrir Square, a focal point of the protests since October.

One of the men described what happened when security forces intervened: “[Three protesters] died because they were shot in the head. Some of the protesters were on the highway, there were clashes with the security forces. Security forces used live ammunition against protesters to disperse them from the highway, and in some cases, they grabbed protesters by their arms and threw them off the overpass. The highway is about five to seven meters above the ground.”

Amnesty International’s Crisis Evidence Lab has geolocated and verified multiple videos depicting some of the events along the highway overpass on January 21. One of the videos clearly shows multiple vehicles with the logo of an elite SWAT team that reports to the Prime Minister.

Tear gas used to kill not disperse

Several videos from the Mohammed al-Qasim highway overpass show masked, uniformed men, launching tear gas grenades directly at protesters’ heads at close range on January 21. Amnesty International previously documented how this tactic, using military-grade tear gas and smoke grenades manufactured in Iran and Serbia, killed dozens of protesters in October and November. Disturbingly, an Iraqi photographer captured one of the assailants on video doing what appears to be a victory dance after firing at protesters below.

One of the protesters who was there on January 21 said:

“I saw one of the anti-riot members shoot a tear gas canister at a boy’s face. A very young boy. He was only one or two meters away when he [anti-riot] shot him in the face. It was so shocking. Like an execution. It was instant chaos. I thought he’s surely dead but he survived but is in critical condition. Another boy died yesterday when a canister hit him in the head but I did not see that with my own eyes.”

Multiple graphic videos shared on social media captured the moments the victims of these attacks were bundled into tuk-tuks and ferried away from the scene.

According to video evidence and eyewitness testimony, a young female paramedic who was assisting injured protesters was detained by the security forces before being released the next day.

Armed raid on residential neighborhood

Following the violence in central Baghdad on January 21, an eyewitness told Amnesty International how, that evening, armed members of the Presidential Guard chased protesters through the streets of al-Dora, a residential and commercial neighborhood several kilometers south of the city center.

A young man involved in the protests there since October told Amnesty International: “The presidential forces at the main checkpoint there received back-up. A truck full… They were all armed now and started shooting in the air and chasing people. They beat and dragged people away. Very young boys. We started running through al-Tuma street. There are coffee shops there and a gym and people started running into the shops. They chased them into the shops and dragged them away. They also dragged away anyone in the shop who tried to help the protesters. They started taking phones from people who were filming and dragging away anybody who resisted handing the phone over to them.”

The organization verified footage from al-Dora that corroborates security forces firing live ammunition at fleeing protesters after nightfall on January 21.

Bloody crackdown in Basra

Activists in Basra described how security forces violently dispersed the protesters, including by meting out severe beatings and firing live ammunition, on January 21 and 22.

One activist providing first aid to the protesters said: “The security forces were using the harshest, dirtiest means to deal with protesters, and the beatings continued for a long time until their [protesters’] clothes were torn and some lost consciousness, then they carried them to the back of the vehicles of the Shock Forces [Basra-based security forces affiliated to the Ministry of Interior].”

The organization viewed photographic evidence of serious wounds across the back of one protester, consistent with beatings that could amount to torture. A video emerged on social media, apparently filmed near Al-Maqal Police Directorate, in which detainees’ screams could be heard.

A protester in Basra told Amnesty International how the violent crackdown had escalated in recent days as a range of different security forces arrived to disperse the protests:

“They were trying to disperse protests, they would even try to disperse any kind of gathering with excessive force. I witnessed many cases where the security forces were dragging people on the ground and beating them. Some were underage, 14 or 15 years old tops. When the beaten protesters would return to the main area of protests, they would have marks of batons and sticks on their bodies.”

He described intense violence from the security forces overnight on January 21 and 22, using a variety of lethal and “less lethal” weapons: “For the last two nights, it’s been the same pattern, the security forces come around 11:00 pm to 12:00 when there are fewer protesters and begin shooting, it’s like they are coming just to kill us.”

Amnesty International verified videos showing the security forces firing live ammunition in Basra, and one apparently wounded person being carried along Dinar Street, on January 21.

“This abhorrent pattern of deliberate killing, torture and repression must be stopped without delay,” said Lynn Maalouf.

“Thousands of Iraqis have been unlawfully killed, injured or arbitrarily detained over the past four months. The Iraqi authorities must urgently rein in the security forces, remove those responsible for serious violations and initiate thorough, independent investigations aimed at bringing accountability and redress for victims and their families. The world is watching and expects no less.”