Iraq: HRW denounces lethal force against protesters, urges probe

Rights watchdog says authorities have to respect fundamental freedoms, respond to protests in proportionate manner.

    Iraq's army acknowledged in Monday it had used excessive force, saying 104 people were killed this past week [File: Wissm al-Okili/Reuters]
    Iraq's army acknowledged in Monday it had used excessive force, saying 104 people were killed this past week [File: Wissm al-Okili/Reuters]

    A human rights group has deplored Iraqi security forces' use of "excessive and unnecessary lethal force" to confront at times rock-throwing demonstrators following a week of protesters that saw more than 100 people killed.

    In a report released on Thursday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said security forces "followed protesters as they dispersed, shooting at them and spraying them with scalding water cannons".

    It called on Iraqi authorities to investigate and where appropriate prosecute members of the armed forces responsible for the deadly clampdown on the capital, Baghdad, and several other cities.

    "For more than a decade, Iraqi governments have said they would investigate abuses by security forces but haven't done so," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW.

    "The killing of at least 105 protestors requires a transparent investigation that results in public findings and accountability for abuses."

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    Thousands of mostly young men took to the streets in different parts of Iraq this past week to denounce rampant corruption, lack of opportunity and poor public services.

    The mostly leaderless demonstrations came at a critical moment for Iraq, which has been caught in the middle of escalating tensions between the US and Iran - both allies of the Iraqi government.

    The mass gatherings started in Baghdad but quickly spread to the Shia heartland in the south, including the flashpoint city of Basra.

    The government imposed a round-the-clock curfew and shut down the internet for days in a bid to quell the protests.

    "While national security is a legitimate basis for restrictions on freedom of expression, these restrictions must be necessary and proportionate to address a specific security concern," HRW said. 

    In a statement on Monday, Iraq's military acknowledged for the first time since the protests broke out that "excessive force" had been used.

    "Excessive force outside the rules of engagement was used and we have begun to hold accountable those commanding officers who carried out these wrong acts," it said.

    HRW also denounced the authorities' interference with the media and telecommunications, noting the government's obligation under international human rights law to protect the right to free speech and assembly.

    Several local television stations were ransacked, and their staff threatened and asked to stop broadcasting during night raids by armed men in uniform.

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