Iraq protest killings: murderers unlikely to face justice, rights groups say

Hundreds took to the streets of Baghdad to vent their anger at lack of action or accountability

At least two Iraqi protesters were killed and hundreds injured late on Tuesday in Baghdad after anti-government demonstrations escalated into rioting and were met by live fire from security forces.

Hundreds gathered in Baghdad's Tahrir Square to demand justice for the killings of dozens of civil society activists, reporters and protesters since the protest movement started in October 2019.

They shouted slogans against Iran-backed militias, many of whom are suspected of being behind the killings, and carried pictures of the victims.

BAGHDAD, IRAQ - MAY 25: Demonstrators face police during an anti-government protest on May 25, 2021 in Baghdad, Iraq. Protesters from across the country gathered in Baghdad demanding accountability after a recent rise in targeted assassinations. The protests used the slogan 'Who killed me' to highlight the recent killings of activists, journalists and human rights advocates. (Photo by Taha Hussein Ali/Getty Images)

The protesters accused Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi's government of failing to give answers and reveal those responsible for the killings.

"As the sun set over Baghdad yesterday, security forces started the violence by using tear gas, rubber bullets and even live ammunition against protesters. The result was the killing of two protesters and the injury of 150 people," said Ali Al Bayati, a member of the semi official Iraqi Human Rights Commission.

Of the 150 injured, 130 were Iraqi security forces, he told The National.

Another account suggested that peaceful protests turned violent shortly before sunset when a group of protesters started attacking anti-riot police with stones and sharp implements.

Eleven protesters were arrested and two police trailers were burnt out, the commission said.

"The commission has been calling for not using excessive force and has conducted more than 500 workshops for law enforcement and security forces on how to deal with the protesters and protect them," the report said.

It also called on the protesters to "adhere to the principles of peaceful protest and distance themselves from any confrontations with the security forces".

BAGHDAD, IRAQ - MAY 25: A member of Riot police got injured during clashes with anti-government protesters on May 25, 2021 in Baghdad, Iraq. Protesters from across the country gathered in Baghdad demanding accountability after a recent rise in targeted assassinations. The protests used the slogan  Who killed me to highlight the recent killings of activists, journalists and human rights advocates. (Photo by Taha Hussein Ali/Getty Images)

It demanded that Mr Al Kadhimi "shoulder his responsibilities and take serious measures against those who used live rounds and excessive force to hold them accountable and release the arrested protesters".

"We call on all parties to exercise self-restraint and adhere to the peaceful means of the protests."

Calls for accountability 

The government opened an investigation into the killings but Mr Al Bayati said it would fail to bring any tangible changes.

“It is not logical to open an investigation by authorities and institutions that are responsible for violence against the protests. The prime minister must remove any officer or figure where violence was committed in their fields and responsibility,” he said.

“They must all be referred to the judiciary.”

The two protesters killed, who were in their early twenties, were identified as Mohammed Baqir Jasim from the southern province of Diwaniyah and Haider Mohammed Samir from Baghdad.

Hundreds of mostly unarmed demonstrators have been killed since the protest movement erupted in 2019. The demonstrations forced Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to resign.

He was replaced by Mr Al Kadhimi who vowed to bring the killers to justice, yet the government has failed to identify the perpetrators and instead Iraq has witnessed an increase in the number of assassinations of influential activists.

The human rights community for more than a year has been warning the government that if there is no accountability for the assassinations, kidnappings, threats and other attacks, the protest movement will not go away, said Belkis Wille, a senior researcher on Iraq at Human Rights Watch.

"Protesters will be more and more galvanised by calls for accountability and justice and people on the streets will continue to remain angry that their government has been completely unable to bring killers to account," Ms Wille told The National.

“As long as accountability isn't delivered by the government I think that protests will continue,” she said.

Although the government said that it had ordered armed forces to not use violence and live ammunition against protesters, that has not been the case.

“This instance really begs the question of the extent to which the prime minister can actually fulfil his role as commander in chief and to which security forces are actually doing what the prime minister is ordering them to do,” she said.

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