Iraq’s security forces fired on and beat protesters in Basra governorate during a series of protests from July 8 to 17, 2018, Human Rights Watch said today. The largely Interior Ministry forces used apparent excessive and unnecessary lethal force against protests over water, jobs, and electrical power that at times turned violent. At least three demonstrators were killed and at least 47 wounded, including two children who were shot and one who was beaten with rifle butts.
Human Rights Watch investigated eight protests, in six of which security forces allegedly fired live ammunition, wounding at least seven protesters. They also threw rocks and beat at least 47 people, including 29 during or after arrest. Witnesses said that in five protests, demonstrators threw rocks, gasoline bombs, and burning tires at the security forces. Since July 14, authorities have severely limited internet access across much of central and southern Iraq.
“The Iraqi authorities need to credibly and impartially investigate the apparent excessive use of lethal force in Basra, even where protests turned violent,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “So long as the government fails to address protester grievances, the danger of further bloody protests remains real.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 13 people on July 18 and 19 who said they participated in the Basra protests, including three activists, four relatives of two seriously injured protesters, three journalists, and Jabar al-Saidi, the security committee chief of the Basra Provincial Council.
Protesters said they had three main demands. They want improved access to desalinated water since Basra’s potable water is heavily salinized during the summer and getting worse each year; they want the government to address Basra’s high rate of unemployment in the oil and other industries; and they want increased access to electricity particularly during the hot summer months.
The protesters acknowledged commitments that Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and other authorities made on July 14 and 17 to allocate funds for desalination, improve access to electricity and health care, and create thousands of new jobs, but said they would only stop protesting once effective action was taken.
They said that the protests in Basra governorate began on July 10 at the oil field near the town of al-Qurna, 75 kilometers northwest of Basra City, and spread quickly to other areas of Basra, including the oil fields of al-Burjisiya and Rumaili, and throughout Basra City. Protests then spread elsewhere in Iraq, including to Babil, Baghdad, Dhi Kar, Karbala, Missan, Muthanna, and Najaf, as widely reported in the media. Human Rights Watch could not confirm allegations of arbitrary arrests, deaths, and injuries at the protests outside of Basra during that period, nor incidents in Basra and elsewhere after July 17. As this report was being finalized, Human Rights Watch received information that unidentified assailants fatally shot lawyer Jabbar Mohammed Karam al-Bahadli, who was petitioning for the release of those detained in the protests, on July 23 in Basra City in a drive-by attack.
Witnesses identified and provided photos and videos of the Interior Ministry’s anti-riot police, federal police, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) forces, Strike Force Brigade (Liwa al-Quwa al-Thariba), and oil facilities police, all identifiable by their uniforms, policing the protests. They said they observed these security forces beating numerous protesters with wooden, plastic, and metal sticks and pipes to disperse the crowds. In two incidents, they said, security forces beat protesters in custody and a journalist conducting an interview.
These security forces along with members of the Badr Organization, part of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, fired on protesters at six of the eight protests investigated, witnesses said. Human Rights Watch documented the deaths of at least two protesters from gunfire. The authorities confirmed both these deaths and a third.
Witnesses said that the 47 injured protesters had been beaten or hit with rocks and gunfire. One protester said he saw a protester hit by a Humvee armored vehicle that was chasing him. Two men are still in comas from serious head injuries caused by the security forces. With the exception of the protests at al-Qurna oil field, protesters and journalists said they did not hear any warning before security forces opened fire or used teargas and water cannons to disperse the crowds.
All 13 witnesses said they saw some protesters throw rocks at the security forces. One saw a Molotov cocktail (gasoline bomb) and another witnessed gunfire directed at security forces.
Al-Saidi, the provincial council security committee chief, said that as of July 19, security forces had killed three protesters and wounded 12, including through gunfire and teargas inhalation, and that protesters had wounded at least 10 security force members. He said that police had arrested and were still detaining at least 70 protesters, including at least two children, who will be charged with damaging government property and attacking security forces. As of July 19, none had been released or charged.
Iraqi security forces engaged in law enforcement duties should strictly abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. The Basic Principles state that law enforcement officials should apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the use of force is unavoidable, they must use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Law enforcement officials may use firearms only to prevent the imminent threat of death or serious injury; the intentional lethal use of firearms can only be used to disperse violent protests when strictly unavoidable to protect life.
National and Basra provincial authorities should credibly, impartially and transparently investigate the use of force by the security forces in the Basra Governorate. Security force members, including commanders, responsible for the unlawful use of excessive or lethal force should be disciplined or prosecuted as appropriate. Victims of unlawful use of force by the security forces should receive prompt and adequate compensation.
Since July 14, Iraqi authorities have blocked access to the internet in much of central and southern Iraq, including to social media and messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook. International human rights law protects the right of people to freely seek, receive, and provide information through all media, including the internet. Security-related restrictions must be law-based and a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern.
“Blocking internet access to people in southern Iraq not only denies them their right to exchange information, but can put people in danger,” Whitson said. “The authorities should urgently lift all internet restrictions except where specific security concerns require such a response.”
Protest on July 8 at al-Qurna Oil Field
Two protesters told Human Rights Watch that on July 8 at al-Qurna oil field, security forces killed at least one protester when they opened fire on the crowd. The protesters said that the protest was peaceful until the killing, after which some protesters began throwing rocks at security forces.
“Muhammad,” 26, an oil worker, said he left work at 9 a.m. on July 8 after a night shift. Muhammad said he saw about 40 protesters gathered outside the oil field gate, blocking the road, and preventing workers from entering. Officers from the oil police and Strike Force Brigade were protecting the oil field. Muhammad joined the protesters and heard an officer tell the protesters to disperse. After 30 minutes, when they had not dispersed, the forces opened fire, he said.
Muhammad saw one man shot in the head as he sat in a tent the protesters had placed in the middle of the road and heard that he later died. On July 9, Muhammad returned to work; as he was leaving, he saw a large group of men blocking the road, who said they were relatives of the man who had died. They blocked the road for five more days, he said.
Protest on July 10 and 11 at al-Qurna Oil Field
Security forces wounded a protester on July 10 at al-Qurna oil field when they opened fire on protesters, and threw a rock, wounding another, Muhammad said. He said the protesters remained peaceful.
Muhammad said that he attended another protest at al-Qurna on July 10 and was part of a group of representatives who spoke to a foreign oil executive who, he said, promised to immediately fire all non-Basra Iraqi staff and to hire only local residents. The next morning, he said, no changes had been made, so by 10 a.m., he and a crowd of about 300 protesters gathered at another gate into the oil field. He said that a commander from the oil police approached the protesters and said that if they did not disperse, his men would resort to force. About 30 minutes later they opened fire, he said. He saw a rock thrown by security forces hit one of his friends in the eye, causing a minor injury, and saw another friend shot with a live bullet in the upper right thigh.
Protest Tent on July 11 and 12 on Tarbiya Street, Basra City
Two protesters said that on the night of July 11 in Basra City, security forces beat at least 10 protesters with thick plastic pipes as they peacefully sat in a tent, then detained them, but later released them from a checkpoint.
About 30 protesters set up a tent at around 2:30 p.m. under a bridge on a sidewalk next to Basra City’s Tarbiya Street, the two protesters said. At about 2 a.m. about 30 Federal Police officers, under the command of the Interior Ministry, approached them and told them to remove their tent.
“Sufyan,” 23, a laborer taking part in the protest, said:
About 20 of our friends left, but 10 of us refused to go or take down the tent. Then the forces started hitting all of us with thick plastic water pipes. At least two officers hit my head, arm and back, before dragging me into their pickup truck along with another six guys from the tent. They blindfolded us, bound our hands and took us to a checkpoint of theirs about two kilometers away, before releasing us from there. I got home and started throwing up blood so went to the doctor the next day for an MRI. He said I was ok though I might have a concussion.
Sufyan showed researchers photos of the red marks to his right arm and lower right back.
Protest on July 14 Outside of the Badr Organization Headquarters in Basra City
A journalist, “Sabah”, and a protester, “Maqsud,” said that on the night of July 14 in Basra City, security forces fired on the crowd several times without warning, wounding at least two children, ages 13 and 3, and detained at least two protesters. They said the protesters threw rocks at the security forces as well as at least one Molotov cocktail, and were burning tires.
Sabah and Maqsud said that they gathered with about 200 protesters that evening outside the Badr Organization headquarters in Basra. They said the protest began at about 8 p.m., with protesters dispersing around 9:30 p.m. and returning at midnight for another two hours. They said that during the initial protest, the protesters blocked the road with burning tires and threw rocks at about eight Badr forces who came outside to protect the building entrance.
They then saw the Badr forces respond to the rocks by firing on the crowd several times. Sabah saw a boy with blood coming from his body at the waistline, but he did not know if he was struck directly by bullets or indirectly with ammunition fragments. The boy’s relatives told Sabah he is 13.
Sabah said he saw protesters rip down and burn a banner of Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Badr Organization, and set it on fire, and one protester threw a Molotov cocktail at the Badr force members, hitting one of them.
Sabah left the protest and returned at midnight, when he saw Badr forces detain two protesters and drag them into their headquarters. He does not know what happened to them. He said that by then, there were more protesters who kept throwing rocks, and Badr forces kept opening fire for longer periods. At one point he said it felt like it was “raining bullets.” Sabah returned to his home 500 meters away at 2 a.m., and met his neighbor, who said he had been outside with his 3-year-old son earlier, when a metal fragment coming from the protest area hit his son, cutting his hand. He did not know how many people were wounded altogether.
Protest on July 15 at al-Burjisiya Oil Field
Three protesters said that on July 15 at al-Burjisiya oil field security forces opened fire on protesters without warning, chased them in vehicles, wounding one protester, and repeatedly beat at least three protesters with wooden sticks when dispersing the crowds. They said some protesters had been throwing rocks at the security forces.
At least 2,000 protesters headed to the oil field gates, about 18 kilometers from the nearest town, at 5:30 a.m. on July 15, the three protesters said. They blocked the road and then entered the oil field gate without meeting resistance from the oil police. The protesters said that at around 9 a.m., about 1,000 protesters passed through the gate, when about 10 Humvee armored vehicles and a few minibuses filled with men in SWAT uniforms and about eight armed men in civilian dress arrived.
A commander emerged from one of the Humvees and asked the protesters to select five to come in to present their demands to the director of the government oil company, but they refused, they said. About 300 protesters then walked toward the main building of ENI, one of the foreign oil companies at the field, at which point several Humvees drove in front of the group, blocking the road, and opened fire without warning, they said. The protesters started running toward the gate.
Ziad, one of the three, said a bullet whizzed by his head. He said he saw one Humvee near him strike a protester, who fell to the side of the road, but did not know what happened to him. He said:
Everyone was running in a different direction, but about 15 of us ran to a local police station inside the compound, and I ran and hid in the bathroom. SWAT forces followed us inside the station and found me in the bathroom. Three of them hit me at least five times with their “donkeys” [a wooden stick with a ball on the end used to herd donkeys], including on top of my head, my right hand and across my chest, while they were cursing at me.
Ziad escaped their grasp as they took him out of the bathroom and kept running in the direction of the nearest town. As he left the station, he said he saw a 20-year-old whom he knew in the back of one of their pickup trucks. “There were about 15 security force members hitting him, and I could hear him screaming, ‘I just want a job so I can get married.’”
Another protester, “Malik,” a 23-year-old barber, said that as they were running away, he saw four people carrying a protester whose left leg was bleeding. He did not know what had caused the injury or what happened to the protester. He said that as they were exiting the oil field gate, he saw three SWAT team members beating another protester’s back with their “donkeys.” He found the protester later and looked at his back, which was red and bruised, he said.
All three protesters said that some protesters had been throwing rocks at the security forces.
Protest on July 15 in Front of Basra Governorate Office
Seven protesters and three journalists said that on July 15, security forces opened fire on protesters outside of the Basra governorate office in the Basra city center without warning, killing at least one, wounding another two who are currently in comas, and wounding a fourth protester in the body, at the waistline. Security forces beat at least 24 protesters, including a child who looked to be about 12, with wooden sticks, plastic and metal pipes, cables, and rifle butts. Sixteen of them were in government custody at the time. Those interviewed said that some protesters had been throwing rocks at security forces and were burning tires.
All said they had been at the protests from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and then again from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. on July 15. They said that anti-riot police and SWAT forces were outside to protect the building and disperse protesters. Inside the building gates, there were Interior Ministry’s Emergency Response Division forces and municipal police.
Two protesters and a journalist, “Hassan,” said they saw seven protesters carrying a young man away, with a large open wound to the left side of his head. Al-Saidi, the provincial council security chief, confirmed to Human Rights Watch that he later died. A protester, “Ayman,” and a journalist, “Sabah,” said they saw a man whom they later identified as Muhammad Abd Ali Naim, 24, lying on the ground with blood pouring from his head, whom protesters also swiftly carried away.
Three relatives of Naim, who remains in a coma, told Human Rights Watch they spoke to friends who took Naim from the protest to the hospital, and later gave the relatives his cell phone. A video from Naim’s phone shows a few protesters standing in front of the governorate office. There is the sound of gunfire and then the phone drops, indicating Naim has been hit. A doctor at Taleem Hospital showed Naim’s brother three metal fragments removed from his head after a three-hour operation. His prognosis is unclear.
One protester, “Karim,” 23, said that he was at the front line of protesters at about 10 a.m. when he saw a protester’s rock hit an anti-riot policeman. Security forces then grabbed him and five other protesters near the front of the governorate building and dragged him inside, he said. He saw the forces beat the protesters taken inside with black plastic sticks while cursing at them and calling them “terrorists,” he said. One policeman who knew the protesters helped them leave the building, putting them into an ambulance and driving them away.
As the group was getting out of the ambulance not far from the protest site, Karim said, he saw a child who looked to be about 12, standing alone, crying from the tear gas. He saw security force personnel open fire into the area above the child and then grab the child and drag him to their Humvee, beating him with the butts of their rifles. Karim does not know what happened to the child.
Hassan said that at about the same time he met a protester who showed him a six-centimeter open wound at his waistline, alleging that anti-riot police had hit him with a plastic pipe. One protester, “Ammar,” a 24-year-old university graduate, said he arrived at the protest at 11 a.m. and saw protesters burning tires, throwing rocks and trying to push through the gate into the governorate office, which he videoed. Anti-riot forces used their plastic shields to try to push the crowds back. He said the security forces first pulled back inside the gates, then rushed back out and started beating protesters with plastic pipes and wooden sticks.
“Aziz,” a protester, said that at this time he saw at least four anti-riot police beat a single protester with wooden sticks. Maqsud said he saw an anti-riot police pick up a rock that had been thrown in his direction and throw it back, hitting an old man in the head. He did not know what happened to the man. Maqsud said that right after this, he saw protesters trying to push their way into the governorate office. Anti-riot police responded with water cannons and teargas, firing cannisters directly into the crowd.
Maqsud said anti-riot police grabbed him and nine others shortly afterward and took them into the governorate building, beating them with metal pipes and plastic cables. He showed photos of red marks on the right side of his face, and his friend’s back, which had at least 18 red marks and open wounds. They both escaped from the office with the help of a friendly officer.
Ammar said he returned to the protests at 5 p.m. and saw a few hundred protesters had returned and were chanting peacefully. At 6 p.m., as he was leaving, anti-riot police suddenly started firing teargas. He ran into a nearby restaurant with three other protesters and sat at a table, pretending they were clients. He said that he watched through a window as about five officers beat three men in their custody, punching and slapping them, then drag them into civilian cars and drive away. He said:
One man in civilian clothes who was with them and carried a handgun suddenly saw us through the window. He pulled out his gun and shot directly at me, shattering the glass. I ran to the back and hid behind the freezer and listened as they dragged away the other three men who had been at the table with me. I waited until it was quieter and then headed home. When I got home, I saw that my clothing was covered in shattered glass.
“Ali,” 33, an artist taking part in the protest, said that at about the same time he saw one protester pull out a handgun and shoot toward the anti-riot police. He did not know if anyone was hit.
The brother of one protester, Muhammad Ali Zmat, 25, said that he had gone to the protest at about 5 p.m. The brother got a call shortly afterward from Zmat’s friends saying he had been hit by either a teargas canister or gunfire. The brother went to the hospital, where doctors had already performed surgery but said Zmat was in a coma and suffered brain damage from a projectile that hit his forehead, pushing bits of his skull into his brain. The brother showed a photo of Zmat in a coma in the hospital, with a large swelling to his eye and bandages around his head.
Protesters said they had held protests in the same location for two days prior to these incidents, in which security forces did not use any force against the protesters, which they captured on video clips.
Protest on July 16 at Lebanon Intersection, Basra City
Two protesters said that on July 16, security forces beat at least eight protesters with sticks. They said the protesters had been burning tires.
They had gone to an evening protest in Basra City at the Lebanon Intersection, where they saw protesters block the road with burning tires. One, Ammar, the university graduate, who watched the protest from afar, said that he saw five Federal Police officers beating at least eight protesters with sticks, then throw what appeared to be the protesters’ motorbikes off the bridge into the river. Ammar said he saw a separate group of seven Federal Police officers beating any apparent protester they could catch.
Protest on July 17 at al-Burjisiya Oil Field
The journalist Hassan said that on July 17 security forces opened fire without warning above the heads of protesters and beat them with sticks to disperse the crowds. One journalist was struck.
Hassan said he and his colleague, who was wearing a press badge, were interviewing some of the about 200 protesters near the oil field gate. He said that as they were interviewing a protester, an oil policeman suddenly came up to them and hit his colleague’s lower right leg. Another officer called out for him to stop, saying they were journalists. He said he saw the oil police officers hitting many of the other protesters to disperse the crowds.