Iranian general ‘played leading role’ in crackdown on Iraqi protests

Gen. Qasim Soleimani
Updated 09 October 2019

Iranian general ‘played leading role’ in crackdown on Iraqi protests

  • Iraqi president acknowledges excessive force had been used against demonstrators

BAGHDAD: The Iraqi government sent Iranian-backed armed factions to crack down on demonstrations and kill protesters, senior Iraqi security officials and politicians told Arab News on Tuesday. 

The groups are said to directly report to Gen. Qasim Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

“The general personally came to Baghdad a few days ago to manage the crisis,” said a senior security official in Baghdad. “He gave the orders to brutally deal with the demonstrators, and even kill them to sow terror in the hearts of the rest.

“On his orders, Iraqi security leaders were excluded from (dealing with the protests), the internet was blocked, most local journalists covering the demonstrations were threatened and some local and Arabic satellite TV stations were set on fire.”

There have been widespread demonstrations in Baghdad and seven southern, Shiite-dominated provinces over the past week in protest against corruption, high levels of unemployment and a lack of basic daily services. They turned violent when Iraqi riot police used live bullets and tear gas to disperse demonstrators who were trying to reach government and political party headquarters.

In the past eight days, more than 180 people have been killed and 7,000 injured, including security personnel, and dozens of government buildings, political party headquarters and military vehicles have been torched, security sources said.

Video footage recorded by demonstrators and activists reveals that many of the demonstrators who were killed were unarmed and not close enough to any security services or government buildings to pose a threat.

One of the videos seen by Arab News showed a young demonstrator running through a popular small marketplace to escape his pursuers. When he stopped to talk to someone a gunman approached and, from a distance of less than a meter, shot him in the head.

In a speech on Monday evening, Iraqi President Barham Salih acknowledged that excessive force had been used against demonstrators but added that the authorities did not give any orders to use deadly force, and the killers are criminals.

“Targeting peaceful demonstrators and security forces with live bullets ... is unacceptable in Iraq, which we have accepted and pledged to be a democracy in which rights and freedoms are fostered,” he said.

“The government and the commanders of the security services assure us that there were no orders to shoot, and that these abuses, the excessive violence and the targeting (of demonstrators) with live bullets, were not (the result of) a decision by the state and its agencies. Consequently, the perpetrators are criminals and outlaws.”

Security chiefs said Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi ignored their recommendations not to use force against protesters as long as they did not pose a threat to citizens or the state, and to try to calm their anger. Rather than allow some time to find a peaceful solution, he ordered armed factions allied with the government to deal with the situation, security officials said.

The factions that took to the street are said to be the Badr Organization, the largest armed Shiite group, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, Sayyid Al-Shuhada Brigades and Saraya Al-Khorasani. Security leaders, politicians and activists said these groups played a pivotal role in cracking down on the demonstrations and the killing of demonstrators.

Iraqi authorities on Tuesday blocked internet access for an eighth consecutive day in an attempt to control the protests and prevent demonstrators from sharing videos and pictures that they hope will help gain more domestic and international support.

Most Iraqi and foreign journalists and activists who were reporting on or monitoring the protests left Baghdad over the past week after receiving warnings that warrants had been issued for the arrest of dozens of them under terrorism legislation, the punishment for which includes the death penalty or life imprisonment.

“We have nothing to do with any of these measures,” said a senior National Security Council official. “Everything related to the demonstrations is currently managed by the Popular Mobilization Security Directorate. Even the arrest warrants issued against journalists and activists, we have nothing to do with them. The situation gets worse day after day.”

The Popular Mobilization Forces is a governmental umbrella organization, established in June 2014, composed of pro-Iran Shiite armed factions and individuals who volunteered to fight Daesh alongside the Iraqi government. The Badr Organization, Assaib Ahl Al-Haq and several other factions form its backbone.

Abdul Mahdi on Sunday announced a package of policies he described as exceptional, including the creation of thousands of jobs, the construction of housing for poor families, loans for the unemployed, and the chance for thousands expelled from military service to return to their units and for volunteers to join the army. It coincided with large-scale arrests of protesters or anyone else involved in the demonstrations.

The protests in Baghdad have greatly diminished since Sunday. There are now only small groups concentrated in Sadr City, east of Baghdad, and the surrounding areas. However, they have been the deadliest in the city to date, with 57 killed and more than 1,000 wounded, 205 of whom are in a critical condition, security and medical sources said.

“What Abdul Mahdi and his allies have done to the protesters is particularly brutal,” a key organizer of the demonstrations told Arab News. “They may silence the demonstrations by force for now but we will soon return more strongly.

“Recent days have proven to us that we are alone and that all political forces have abandoned us, while others have traded us, so our next step is to resort to arms. They have left us no other choice.”


Turkey’s democratic credentials under the spotlight

Members of Turkish forces guard in Aliaga, Izmir province, western Turkey. (AP file photo)
Updated 26 min 45 sec ago

Turkey’s democratic credentials under the spotlight

  • Analysts urge world community to highlight crackdown on freedoms

JEDDAH: The fifth hearing of the Gezi Park protests trial resumed on Tuesday, on the same day as the third Universal Periodic Review of Turkey began before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Analysts called on international organizations to highlight the crackdown on human rights and press freedom in the country.
On Tuesday, 16 critical voices from Turkish civil society, including businessman-philanthropist Osman Kavala, faced life in prison for “attempting to overthrow the government or partially or wholly prevent its functions” as they were accused of playing a role in Gezi Park protests.
In 2013, around 3.6 million people attended the protests in 80 cities across Turkey, according to official statistics.
The trial is seen as part of systematic moves by the Turkish government to restrict civil society and human rights defenders in the country by continuously accusing them of links to terror groups.
Before the trial, Amnesty International’s Turkey campaigner, Milena Buyum, said: “This prosecution is a shameful attempt to silence independent civil society, and part of a wider ongoing crackdown on human rights defenders. Osman Kavala should not have spent a single minute behind bars let alone more than two years in pre-trial detention.”
However, the court refused to release Kavala. The hearing was delayed until Feb. 18. A request for a recusal was also rejected.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) had ruled that Kavala and Selahattin Demirtas — the former leader of pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and a staunch opponent of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — should be immediately released as they had already faced prolonged and arbitrary detention in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The ECHR ruled: “Any continuation of (Osman Kavala’s) pre-trial detention in the present case will entail a prolongation of the violation of Article 5/1 and of Article 18.”
The judicial campaign against the 16 defendants has mostly been justified through anti-terror laws, laws against associations, public order legislation or defamatory accusations on the grounds of “propagandizing for a terror organization” or “insulting the president.”
During the Universal Periodic Review in Geneva, that will continue until Jan 30, an official from the Turkish delegation claimed “everyone has a right to hold demonstrations” in Turkey. However, evidence suggests this is not the case. For instance, according to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, since November 2016, all demonstrations have been banned in Turkey’s eastern city of Van.
The 2016 failed coup attempt also provided a pretext for the government to increase its repressive measures against dissidents.
In the post-coup period, many opposition journalists, politicians and activists were detained and prosecuted on vague charges and in defiance of international human rights conventions that the country is obliged to abide by.

FASTFACT

The 2016 failed coup attempt provided a pretext for the government to increase its repressive measures against dissidents.

EuroMed Rights, a human rights network, gave an exclusive interview to Arab News, saying that since the Gezi Park protests, an erosion of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms had been observed in Turkey.
“Today, the judiciary clearly aims to rewrite the events of 2013 as a conspiracy against the government. The hearing against Osman Kavala is an example among others,” an official from EuroMed Rights said.
According to EuroMed Rights, civil society in Turkey today is under constant pressure, and the space available for civic engagement is shrinking, as associations are now compelled to report information about their members — ID numbers, names, occupations — to the Ministry of Interior.
“The two-year-long state of emergency and law no. 7145 (July 2018) intended, among others, to ban protests, public assemblies and restrict movement are in total contradiction with articles 19, 23 and 34 of the Turkish constitution. Such decisions seek to isolate organizations and human rights defenders by criminalizing engagement with independent associations,” the official said.
He added: “A strong and independent civil society is the sign of a healthy democracy where citizens can engage with society through independent organizations. A government that weakens civil society willingly decides to remove a diversity of voices from the democratic debate.”
The official from EuroMed Rights also said that, by denying citizens the right to associate, the authorities threatened civil society, which cannot hold the government accountable for decisions and cannot act as an intermediary between the citizens and their representatives.
Experts called on the EU, the Council of Europe and the UN to put pressure on the Turkish government to bring the country back towards international standards.
“This is the only way to ensure the people in Turkey do not see their rights abused,” the EuroMed Rights official added.