Series of killings plunges Iraq activists into familiar fear

Series of killings plunges Iraq activists into familiar fear
A protester wears tear gas canisters on his fingers and gestures the victory sign during anti-government protests in Karbala. (AFP)
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Updated 22 August 2020

Series of killings plunges Iraq activists into familiar fear

Series of killings plunges Iraq activists into familiar fear
  • The list of victims is long: Dozens of activists have been killed in Iraq in recent years, including during bloody protests in 2018 over a public health crisis in Basra that had put more than 100,000 people in hospital

BASRA: In under a week, two activists have been assassinated and three more narrowly survived murder attempts in southern Iraq, where tensions between pro-Iran groups and a Western-leaning government are claiming new victims.
One of them was Riham Yaaqub, a 29-year-old athletics coach who was deeply involved in anti-government protests and who was shot dead in the southern province of Basra on Wednesday.
Five days earlier in Basra, activist Tahsin Al-Shahmani died after being shot more than two dozen times.
The targeted killings sent shivers down spines in Iraq’s civil society, already deeply disturbed by the July killing in Baghdad of Hisham Al-Hashemi, a government adviser and widely respected historian.
“The government and security forces have done nothing, but everyone knows the killers are the same ... (they) killed Riham, Tahsin, and Hisham Al-Hashemi,” said Ammar Al-Hilfi, a prominent activist in Basra.
The list of victims is long: Dozens of activists have been killed in Iraq in recent years, including during bloody protests in 2018 over a public health crisis in Basra that had put more than 100,000 people in hospital.
Then, in October, widespread rallies erupted across Baghdad and the south against a government seen as corrupt, inept and beholden to neighboring Iran. Protest-related violence left nearly 600 dead, including some shot dead while walking home from demonstrations.
Still others were kidnapped, assaulted or threatened.
On Monday, three more activists in Basra — Ludia Rimon, Fahad Al-Zubaydi and Abbas Al-Subhi — were heading to the Shahmani family home to offer their condolences when a car full of armed men began firing at them.
The trio managed to escape, wounded and shaken but alive.
The city’s activist collectives have been left reeling by the sudden spree of violence.
“During the month of August, there have been six assassinations or attempted killings,” said Mehdi Al-Tamimi, who heads the city’s Human Rights Council.
In total over the last year, Tamimi told AFP, the city has been hit by eight such murders and seven attempted killings.
Basra is oil-rich but infrastructure-poor: Electricity grids, water networks and roads are some of the most badly maintained in the country and the rule of law is weak.

HIGHLIGHT

Dozens of activists have been killed in Iraq in recent years, including during bloody protests in 2018. In the month of August, there have been six assassinations or attempted killings.

Yaaqub began speaking out during Basra’s 2018 protests, appearing on several media outlets despite limits on the public role of women in her conservative hometown.
Two years ago, she was targeted by an online smear campaign for having met with the US consul in Basra.
This week, online accounts began republishing a 2018 article from Mehr, an Iranian news agency close to Tehran’s ultra-conservatives, accusing Yaaqub and others of belonging to a “network woven by the Americans to target Iran in the region.”
Other activists, journalists and researchers have faced smears accusing them of links to Western embassies or intelligence services.
No group has officially claimed responsibility for the propaganda campaigns or the killings and authorities have yet to hold anyone to account.
But online accounts that appear to be supportive of Iran and its allies in Iraq have become increasingly bold in their threats to activists.
The UN and Western embassies have blamed “militias,” urging Baghdad to fully protect free speech.
“It is unconscionable that the perpetrators of these horrible acts continue to act with impunity,” the US State Department said after Yaaqub’s killing.
Yaaqub was killed just as top US diplomat Mike Pompeo was meeting his Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein in Washington, part of the first senior Baghdad delegation to visit the US in several years.
Heading the team was Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who has struggled to fulfil his pledge to rein in powerful Tehran-backed groups who act independently of state forces.
Al-Kadhimi was already reviled by Iran-backed groups, which have openly accused him of being a US “agent,” while their personnel have burned American flags as they stepped on portraits of the premier.
Immediately after ascending to the premiership in May, Al-Kadhemi ordered the offices of one armed group in Basra closed, but efforts to silence activists continued.
Last month, a senior Iraqi official said the government suspected “possible assassinations” as a reaction to Al-Kadhemi’s policy of extending state control.
Following Yaaqub’s killing, Al-Kadhemi announced he had sacked Basra’s police chief and dispatched his interior minister Othman Al-Ghanemi to Basra to handle security. Basra’s civil society network isn’t optimistic. “The government is weak compared to militias,” Hilfi said.
“But this will only make us more determined. Now, more than just demanding our rights, we will demand those of our martyrs.”


Hundreds protest police repression in Tunisia

Hundreds protest police repression in Tunisia
Updated 32 min 22 sec ago

Hundreds protest police repression in Tunisia

Hundreds protest police repression in Tunisia
  • Saturday’s protests come as the North African nation struggles to stem the novel coronavirus pandemic
  • The government on Saturday extended a night-time curfew from 8 p.m. (1900 GMT) to 5 a.m. and banned gatherings until February 14

TUNIS: Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of Tunisian cities on Saturday to protest police repression, corruption and poverty, following several nights of unrest marked by clashes and arrests.
Saturday’s protests come as the North African nation struggles to stem the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has crippled the economy and threatened to overwhelm hospitals.
Over 6,000 people have died from Covid-19 in Tunisia, with a record 103 deaths reported on Thursday.
The government on Saturday extended a night-time curfew from 8 p.m. (1900 GMT) to 5 a.m. and banned gatherings until February 14.
But protesters took to the streets in several parts of the country, including the capital Tunis and the marginalized interior region of Gafsa, to demand the release of hundreds of young people detained during several nights of unrest since January 14.
“Neither police nor Islamists, the people want revolution,” chanted demonstrators in a crowd of several hundred in Tunis, where one person was wounded in brief clashes amid a heavy police presence.
Protests were also held in the coastal city of Sfax on Friday.
Much of the unrest has been in working class neighborhoods, where anger is boiling over soaring unemployment and a political class accused of having failed to deliver good governance, a decade after the 2011 revolution that toppled long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Economic misery exacerbated by novel coronavirus restrictions in the tourism-reliant nation have pushed growing numbers of Tunisians to try to leave the country.
“The situation is catastrophic,” said Omar Jawadi, 33, a hotel sales manager, who has been paid only half his salary for months.
“The politicians are corrupt, we want to change the government and the system.”
The police have said more than 700 people were arrested over several nights of unrest earlier this week that saw young people hurl rocks and petrol bombs at security forces, who responded with tear gas and water cannon.
Human rights groups on Thursday said at least 1,000 people had been detained.
“Youth live from day to day, we no longer have hope, neither to work nor to study — and they call us troublemakers!” said call center worker Amine, who has a degree in aerospace engineering.
“We must listen to young people, not send police in by the thousands. The whole system is corrupt, a few families and their supporters control Tunisia’s wealth.”
Tunisia last week marked one decade since Ben Ali fled the country amid mass protests, ending 23 years in power.
Tunisia’s political leadership is divided, with Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi waiting for parliament to confirm a major cabinet reshuffle announced last Saturday.