By William Fisher
Human Rights Watch is charging that, despite U.S. government assurances that it helped create a stable democracy, the reality is that it left behind a “budding police state” -- cracking down harshly during 2011 on freedom of expression and assembly by intimidating, beating, and detaining activists, demonstrators, and journalists.
The organization’s Middle East and North Africa director, Sarah Leah Whitson, warns that “Iraq is quickly slipping back into authoritarianism as its security forces abuse protesters, harass journalists, and torture detainees.”
Its World Report 2012 attributes the downward trajectory to the security services of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki” and armed gangs.
The report notes that in February, HRW “uncovered a secret detention facility controlled by elite security forces who report to the military office of the Prime Minister. The report added, “The same elite divisions controlled Camp Honor, a separate facility in Baghdad where detainees were tortured with impunity.”
The 676-page report report says, “Given the violent forces resisting the “Arab Spring,” the international community has an important role to play in assisting the birth of rights-respecting democracies in the region.”
The report documents a wide range of human rights abuses. For example, it says, “In the weeks before the last convoy of US troops left Iraq on December 18, Iraqi security forces rounded up hundreds of Iraqis accused of being former Baath Party members, most of whom remain in detention without charge.”
The pullout of U.S. troops has been marked by an “apolitical crisis and a series of terrorist attacks targeting civilians that have rocked the country.” But Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence is not new and is unconnected to the US exit. A number of US Embassy cables released by Wikileaks refer to the torture of prisoners in Iraqi custody and of knowledge of some of it by US troops.
The annual report, which covers the state of human rights in some 90 countries, says that, during nationwide demonstrations in Iraq to “protest widespread corruption and demand greater civil and political rights,” security forces “violently dispersed protesters, killing at least 12 on February 25, and injuring more than 100. Baghdad security forces beat unarmed journalists and protesters that day, smashing cameras and confiscating memory cards.”
Earlier in the year, “in one of the worst incidents, government-backed thugs armed with wooden planks, knives, and iron pipes, beat and stabbed peaceful protesters and sexually molested female demonstrators as security forces stood by and watched, sometimes laughing at the victims,” the report charges.
In May, the report says, the Council of Ministers approved a Law on the Freedom of Expression of Opinion, Assembly, and Peaceful Demonstration, which “authorizes officials to restrict freedom of assembly to protect ‘the public interest’ and in the interest of ‘general order or public morals.’ This law still awaits parliamentary approval.
HRW comments that freedom of expression fared little better as “security forces routinely abused journalists covering demonstrations, using threats, arbitrary arrests, beatings, and harassment, and confiscating or destroying their equipment.”
On September 8, the report says, “An unknown assailant shot to death Hadi al-Mahdi, a popular radio journalist often critical of government corruption and social inequality, at his home in Baghdad. Immediately before his death, HRW says al-Mahdi had received several phone and text message threats not to return to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, which was the focal point for the weekly demonstrations.”
Earlier, after attending the February 25 “Day of Anger” mass demonstration, security forces arrested, blindfolded, and severely beat him and three other journalists during a subsequent interrogation,” HRW says.
In January 2012, HRW says it “observed that Iraqi authorities had successfully curtailed the Tahrir Square anti-government demonstrations by flooding the weekly protests with pro-government supporters and undercover security agents. Dissenting activists and independent journalists for the most part said that they no longer felt safe attending the demonstrations.”
The report continues, “Prison brutality, including torture in detention facilities, was a major problem throughout the year. In February, Human Rights Watch uncovered, within the Camp Justice military base in Baghdad, a secret detention facility controlled by elite security forces who report to al-Maliki’s military office.”
Beginning in late 2010, the report charges, Iraqi authorities transferred more than 280 detainees to the facility, which was controlled by the Army’s 56th Brigade and the Counter-Terrorism Service.
HRW added that “the same elite divisions controlled Camp Honor, a separate facility in Baghdad where detainees were tortured with impunity. More than a dozen former Camp Honor detainees told Human Rights Watch that detainees were held incommunicado and in inhumane conditions, many for months at a time. Detainees said interrogators beat them; hung them upside down for hours at a time; administered electric shocks to various body parts, including the genitals; and repeatedly put plastic bags over their heads until they passed out from asphyxiation.”
HRW also weighed in on the human rights situation in Iraqi Kurdistan. In what it called the “Silenced Spring,” HRW’s Samer Muscati recounts that the Kurdistan Regional Government “promised a new era of freedom for Iraqi Kurds, but it seems no more respectful of Kurdish rights to free speech than the government that preceded it.”
He added, “In a time when the Middle East is erupting in demands to end repression, the Kurdish authorities are trying to stifle and intimidate critical journalism.”
In March, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 20 journalists in Kurdistan covering the protests and found that security forces and their proxies routinely repress journalists through threats, arbitrary arrests, beatings, and harassment, and by confiscating and destroying their equipment.
And Iraqi authorities appear to be pulling no punches. Zana Ali Ghazi, 32, a reporter for the Kurdistan News Network (KNN), a satellite television channel affiliated with the Kurdish opposition party, Goran, said that while he was trying to report on a protest in the city of Saeed Sadiq on March 15, “eight armed men, some in uniform, cracked three of his ribs and beat him with wooden clubs and Kalashnikovs until he lost consciousness. ‘They told me that if I continued to cover this type of news, they would kill me’,” Ghazi told HRW.
Kurdistan authorities have repeatedly tried to silence Livin Magazine, one of Iraqi Kurdistan's leading independent publications, and other media. The international community should end its silence and condemn these widening attacks, Human Rights Watch said.
A Livin reporter told Human Rights Watch that when he called the Minister of Peshmerga (Kurdistan security forces), on April 24, the minister threatened Livin's editor, Mira, with death. The reporter says the conversation is on tape but that no one from the Iraqi authorities had made any move to investigate.
In Sulaimaniya on the night of May 11, security forces detained and beat a Kurdistan News Network reporter, Bryar Namiq, breaking his hand.
In Arbil, two journalists, who HRW says are afraid to be named for fear of reprisal, charged that on May 18 eight men in civilian clothes chased after them in late April. The men appeared in two vehicles on the street just before the journalists were supposed to meet with a regional official who had asked for a meeting with some members of the media.
HRW says the journalists believe that the men were plainclothes security forces who were aware of the meeting and were trying to kidnap them.
The HRW Report says that Soran Umar, a protest organizer and freelance journalist, has been in hiding since April 19. "I have not slept at home since then," he told Human Rights Watch on May 17. "My sin is that I am criticizing the undemocratic acts of KRG and the two ruling parties, that is all. The security forces have tried to kidnap me, and they have ordered my arrest. They even tried to kidnap my son."
These examples appear to be a small fraction of abuses carried out by Iraqi government authorities against journalists -- Reporters Without Borders has tallied 44 physical attacks against media workers and outlets and 23 arrests.
Which prompted this thought from HRW’s Sarah Leah Whitson: "Eight years after the United States removed Saddam Hussein in the name of protecting the rights of Kurds, it is standing by silently as the government it
helped to install in Kurdistan abuses and represses the population. US President Obama noted in his speech on May 20 the flourishing democracy in Iraq, but the reality is that government-sponsored fear and
repression continue to fester there."