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JOINT STATEMENT – THE OBSERVATORY, IRAQ and IRAQI KURDISTAN: Systematic targeting of human rights defenders

Paris-Geneva-Baghdad-Beirut-Erbil, May 26, 2021 – In the framework of the ongoing demonstrations against corruption, unemployment, and for political reform in Iraq, human rights defenders, peaceful protesters, bloggers and independent journalists have been targeted by a wave of threats, kidnappings, arbitrary detentions, and killings. The Observatory (FIDH-OMCT) the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights (IOHR), Metro Center. Iraqi Al Amal Association (IAA), and Iraqi Network for Social media (INSM) express their utmost concern over these events and call on the Iraqi authorities to put an end to all acts of harassment against human rights defenders, journalists and peaceful protesters and hold perpetrators accountable.

Peaceful demonstrations erupted across Iraq in October 2019 to protest against widespread unemployment, poor public services and rampant corruption. In reaction, a wave of attacks, killings, harassment and threats by unidentified armed actors have been targeting human rights defenders. Peaceful protesters were met with excessive use of force by police and with arbitrary detentions. Despite the commitments by the current government, formed one year ago, to put an end to these human rights violations, the situation is far from improving. Protests are ongoing. Violence against human rights defenders and protesters has not ceased, and impunity is pervasive. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), from October 2019 to April 2020, at least 487 people were killed and 7,715 injured in the context of the protest. Local human rights organisations estimate that the total number of protesters killed until October 2020 amounted to 600, while 30,000 would have been injured. The numbers have not improved in the past year. 

Killings and armed attacks of human rights defenders

On May 8, 2021, Ihab Jawad Al-Wazni, the head of the Karbala Coordination for the Civil Movement, was assassinated in front of his house in the city of Karbala by an unidentified gunman riding a motorbike. Fahim Al-Tai, his colleague who coordinated peaceful activities for the movement, including through social networks, had already been killed on December 8,  2019 under similar circumstances. Hassan Ashour, a prominent civil society activist was also killed in front of his house in Dhi Qar province on April 15, 2021, after having been threatened by armed groups. It is reported that, on the same day, the security forces injured nine peaceful protesters and one more Mohammed Sattari, was killed by a member of the security forces who ran over him in a car in a southern suburb of Baghdad.

Whether victims have been assassinated in their homes or during protests, the authorities have consistently failed to publicly identify or charge the perpetrators of these killings.

Abduction, arbitrary detention, and judicial harassment of human rights defenders

Human rights defenders are routinely subjected to abduction, arbitrary detention, and judicial harassment. On April 25, 2021, the Babylon Governorate Criminal Court sentenced human rights lawyer Hassan Maharj Al-Toufan to two years in prison on trumped-up charges of “insulting the states and the courts”, in retaliation for his fight against corruption and support for the protests.

On April 6, 2021, security forces also arrested Hussain Dakhel, a civil society activist, for having referred to the courage and bravery of the demonstrators in Dhi Qar Governorate by carrying with him a picture in the streets in Karbala City. Although he seems to still be held in detention, the Karbala Governorate Police Directorate published a statement on Facebook on April 7, 2021, denying his detention.

On April 1, 2021, Haider Khashan, a civil society activist who had been receiving death threats by unknown individuals, was kidnapped in front of his house in Samawa City. He was, however, released a few hours later.

In addition, it is worth noting that on April 16, 2021, two peaceful protesters were kidnapped at the scene of a bombing, which took place in the Al-Habibiya area, while they were about to denounce a terrorist act that struck civilians in eastern Baghdad. On 27 April 2021, another protester, Hassan Ali Al-Mansouri was arbitrarily arrested in Najaf by security forces but was released after one night of protest. Furthermore, peaceful protester Bashir Abbas was tortured by Basra police officers while in custody to extract confessions and later sentenced to 10 years and two months of prison on March 31, 2021.

Attacks, harassment and threats against journalists and bloggers

Bloggers and journalists, including Hussain Taqriban, have been threatened and smeared on social networks. Their relatives have been targeted as well.These threats havesometimes been followed by further attacks.On May 2, 2021, Abbas Al-Rafi’i, journalist, poet and civilsociety activistwas kidnapped by a member of the armed forces in Karbala for transmitting news on peaceful protests but was later released.

Additionally, in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, the Court of Cassation rejected on April 28, 2021, the appeal made against the verdict issued by the Second Criminal Court in Erbil which includes a six years’ imprisonment against five men – journalist and civil society activist Ayaz Karam Burji from Dohuk, teacher and civil society activist Hariwan Issa Mohammed from Summele, journalist Kohdar Mohammed Amin Zebari from Akre, freelance journalist and civil society activist Sherwan Amin Sherwani from Erbil, as well as political activist Mulla Shafan Saeed Omar Brushki(Dosky) from Dohuk.

The Observatory, the Gulf Center for Human Rights, the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights, Metro Center, Iraqi Al Amal Association and Iraqi network for Social media (INSM) express their utmost concern over the attacks and silencing of human rights defenders, and the ensuing restrictions on their rights to life, to security, to freedom of expression and association in Iraq. The signatory organisations call on the authorities in Iraq and the authorities of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to ensure that all human rights defenders are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions, including judicial harassment. They further call on the Iraqi authorities to hold accountable those responsible of attacks against human rights defenders, including threats and killings, and to put an end to the impunity surrounding the same acts.

At the same time, they call on the Human Rights Council to hold a special session to address the gross violations against freedom of expression and peaceful assembly that are taking place in Iraq, where intimidation and revenge campaigns have been waged against peaceful demonstrators, human rights activists and journalists, which are likely to impact negatively the freeness and fairness of the upcoming election in October this year.

 The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and FIDH. The objective of this programme is to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. OMCT and FIDH are both members of, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) is an independent, non-profit NGO that provides support and protection to human rights defenders (HRDs) in order to promote human rights, including but not limited to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. GCHR is based in Lebanon and documents the environment for HRDs in the Gulf region and neighbouring countries, specifically Bahrain, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. GCHR was founded in 2011. GCHR’s vision is to have vibrant civic spaces in the Gulf region and neighbouring countries in which human rights are fully respected and HRDs, including journalists, bloggers and Internet activists, can work free from oppression and fear.

In mid-2013, the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights was founded by a group of journalists and human rights defenders for the purpose of pushing the authorities to abide national laws and international covenants that preserve human dignity regardless of race, color, form, religion, sect or nationality. The IOHR has a network of volunteers and local resources in all governorates of Iraq. Those volunteers and resources work on monitoring and documenting violations, whether committed by official authorities or by other bodies and groups. Over the past six years, this network that operates at the IOHR has expanded to include up to 70 volunteer monitors, who have helped issuing annual reports and periodic reports that documented all events in the country over a period of 72 months.

Metro Center was established in 2009 by a group of journalists and human rights advocates, supported by Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), aiming at monitoring free press situation in Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Metro was established according to the Kurdistan region code of the non-governmental organizations, number (1) in 2011, and has received the formal license from Kurdistan Regional Government. By providing grants for the center’s projects. Metro Center monitors the implementation of Media Code number (35) in 2008 and the Code number (11) of the rights of Access to Information, and also monitors the way the government deals with the international regulations pertinent to the protection of the rights of freedom of speech and journalistic freedoms, working with the government and the NGOs to put those rights in action and to spread them out. Metro has representations in Kurdistan Region cities, Baghdad, and some European capitals and cooperates with international and Iraqi NGOs.

Iraqi Al Amal Association (IAA) has been established in 1992 as a non-partisan and non-profit organization under the slogan “For the welfare of Humanity”. It has a Special Consultative Status with ECOSOC. IAA aim is for the rehabilitation of people and for influencing the social consciousness towards the creation of a democratic state based on guarantee human rights and rule of law. Through its program of Al-Namaa Center for Human Rights, IAA works all over Iraq on monitoring human rights violations and developing the skills of human rights defenders in advocacy campaigns and networking to improve the human rights situation in Iraq.

Iraqi Network for Social Media (INSM) has been established in 2011 as an NGO by bloggers who continue to work on defending freedom of expression on the Internet and people’s rights in Iraq. INSM also is heavily involved in capacity building efforts to equip human rights defenders including Internet activists with knowledge and tools that empower them as they do their legitimate and peaceful human rights work.


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