Iraq arrests members of 'death squad’ suspected of killing activists in Basra

Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi says those arrested are suspects in killing of two journalists in January 2020

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi speaks during a news conference in Basra, Iraq, July 15, 2020. Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Pool via REUTERS
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Members of a “death squad” that killed several Iraqi activists were arrested on Monday, Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi said, as the government attempts to clamp down on assassinations.

The government has been under pressure to find and punish the killers of activists calling for reforms, with public concern mounting over the frequency of these attacks.

"The death squad who terrorised our people in Basra, and killed innocents, are now in the hands of our heroic forces, on their way to a fair trial," Mr Al Kadhimi said on Twitter.

The identity of the group was not made public.

Among the dozens of people killed was journalist Ahmed Abdessamad, 37, and his cameraman Safaa Ghali, 26, who had been covering anti-government protests in their home town of Basra. They were shot dead in their car last January while parked near a police station.

Abdessamad was a vocal supporter of the anti-government rallies that erupted across south Iraq in October 2019.

Jinan Madzi, a paramedic who treated wounded protesters, was shot dead during anti-government demonstrations in Basra in the same month.

Riham Yaqoob, a doctor and female activist who became the face of the protests in Basra, was killed in August.

A few weeks after her death, the killing of another activist, Tahseen Osama, pushed protesters take to the streets to demand that authorities find those responsible.

“We got the killers of Jinan and Abdessamad, and we will get the killers of Riham, Hisham, and all others,” Mr Al Kadhimi said, referring to Hisham Al Hashimi, an Iraqi security analyst who was shot dead outside his home in Baghdad last June.

"Justice will not sleep,” Mr Al Kadhmi said.

Al Hashimi's death dealt a huge blow to the country’s academic, social and security institutions.

Born in Baghdad in 1973, he was a well-respected expert who wrote extensively about ISIS and Al Qaeda, including three books, and advised the current and past governments on terrorism and extremist groups.

He was also a strong supporter of the anti-government movement.

Mr Al Kadhimi, the former head of Iraq's intelligence services, took office last May, five months after his predecessor, Adel Abdul Mahdi, resigned in the face of anti-government protests in Baghdad and other southern cities.

He promised to bring to justice those behind the assassinations but so far there have been no public arrests or trials.

In October 2019, thousands of Iraqis took to the streets venting their anger at the government’s inability to provide adequate public services, employment opportunities, kicking out foreign interference and to combat corruption.

They demanded an overhaul of the political system, which allocates positions to parties based on ethnic and sectarian identities, encouraging patronage and corruption.