(Beirut) – Iraqi security forces punched, kicked, detained, and interrogated protesters in Baghdad’s “Green Zone” on November 17, 2015. Law enforcement officials have not contacted the victims, despite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s order to investigate, and authorities have not responded to requests for information about the investigation’s status.
Activists who had been holding weekly protests against alleged corruption announced plans to present a petition to the parliament, in the Green Zone, on November 17. At their gathering place a few hundred meters away, security forces punched and kicked several protesters, took three of them away for interrogation, and detained about 30 for two hours, three of the 30 reported. Prime Minister al-Abadi the same day ordered an immediate investigation into claims of abuse and to hold accountable those “transgressing on the right to peaceful demonstration.”
“Public statements are only as good as their follow-through,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “Time and again in Iraq authorities announce an investigation and the abusers continue to operate with impunity.”
Masked security forces took three of the protesters inside the Green Zone, to the headquarters of the Brigade 56, Special Assignment Forces, Headquarters of Baghdad Operations, two of the three told Human Rights Watch. A brigadier-general, whom one of the protesters recognized as having been at Friday demonstrations in nearby Tahrir Square, interrogated them. But before the interrogation, security forces beat, kicked, slapped, insulted, and forced them into stress positions, one of those abused said. The car in which they were driven to the spot where they were released after several hours had a green Defense Ministry license plate with some of the digits scratched off, one of the protesters said.
Despite al-Abadi’s order for an immediate investigation, the close proximity of the events to all main government buildings, and the readiness of witnesses to cooperate, no investigating authority has contacted any protester to provide information, five protesters who remained in contact with fellow protesters told Human Rights Watch.
Protesters gathered on the morning of November 17 at the Haider Double restaurant in Maryam Karrada, a Baghdad area adjacent to the Green Zone, the heavily secured area that houses government ministries. By 11 a.m., about 60 protesters had gathered. Vehicles with security guards appeared and surrounded the protesters in the restaurant.
Human Rights Watch spoke to five protesters, who said there were several dozen security forces, about half in civilian clothes, most masked and armed with pistols. One vehicle had a large machine gun mounted in the back. The uniformed men wore black uniforms with insignias reading Iraqi Special Weapons and Tactics force or, in some cases, anti-riot forces, all five protesters said. They said that the uniformed men carried automatic rifles and batons.
The forces in civilian clothing, in the front row, punched several protesters, and a captain told the security forces to “shoot at the legs of the protesters if they take one step forward,” three protesters said.
Eight masked men grabbed three protesters, Ali Hashim, Husain al-Najjar, and ‘Imad al-Mayahi, and took them away in a car. They punched some of the remaining protesters and put them all in two small buses. The buses, escorted by military vehicles, drove some distance, then stopped. The security forces collected all mobile phones and told the protesters not to protest while the country was fighting the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). After an hour, security forces returned their belongings and released them.
One of the three abducted protesters told Human Rights Watch that he was able to glimpse his surroundings from under this blindfold when they went over speed bumps and noticed they were entering the Green Zone.
The security officers took them into a dirty corridor of a building where the men insulted and slapped them and forced them to remain kneeling with their foreheads touching the floor for what one protester said seemed like an hour. Men walked up and down, kicking and slapping them.
The men then took them one by one into an interrogation room, where one asked them why they wanted to take over parliament and who was behind them. A guard allowed one protester to take off his blindfold to go to the bathroom. When he returned to the interrogation room without his blindfold he saw the brigadier-general he had seen giving orders at the arrest site and at previous Friday demonstrations and knew by his voice that he had conducted the interrogations. The brigadier-general, angry because the blindfold had been removed, slapped him, the protester said.
Another man told the brigadier general that a member of parliament had arrived and demanded access. The brigadier-general ordered the officers to take the three protesters out the back door. Several men drove the protesters to al-Faqma ice cream shop, several kilometers from the Green Zone, then released them. One protester said that the emblem on the car said, “Brigade 56, Special Assignment Forces, Headquarters of Baghdad Operations.”
“Those working peacefully to make Iraq a better place face enormous personal risks from criminal gangs, militias, and official security forces,” Stork said. “Those abusing peaceful protesters enjoy effective impunity as long as Iraq’s judiciary doesn’t uphold the rule of law and hold the abusers accountable.”