Iraq Protesters Are Attacked While Police Stand By, HRW Says

Peaceful rallies in Iraq to call for an end to corruption and improved basic services were marred this week when police stood by as armed assailants beat and stabbed protesters, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

Dozens of men wielding clubs and knives on Feb. 21 attacked about 50 protesters who had set up tents in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, wounding at least 20, according to the report, issued by the New York-based campaign group late yesterday. Witnesses told the group the assailants talked to the police before the attack.

The protesters used the Internet, including social media websites, to plan rallies across Iraq today, HRW said, a month after a similar “Day of Anger” demonstration in Egypt led to the Feb. 11 ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Five people were killed today at a rally in the northern city of Mosul and there were dozens of casualties, including some deaths, in al-Anbar province, west of Baghdad, Al Arabiya television reported.

“Promises by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to allow protests are meaningless when we see vicious attacks,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in the report. “Iraqi authorities should hold police who allowed this attack to happen accountable.”

Iraqi demonstrations calling for an end to corruption and better services preceded the wave of unrest that has swept through North Africa and the Middle East. In June, violent protests over power shortages led to the resignation of the electricity minister.

Five Previous Deaths

At least five people have died in previous protests since Feb. 16, according to the report. Small demonstrations have taken place in Iraq since the start of the month, including some in the northern semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan. Armed men have also targeted opposition groups and journalists, HRW said.

Human Rights Watch said its workers saw “lacerations or bruises on seven protesters” who took part the Feb. 21 demonstration in Baghdad. Witnesses’ testimony was consistent with video images shot at the scene in the hours before the attack, and of wounded protesters the next morning, it said.

At previous rallies in Baghdad, Human Rights Watch said, it observed members of the security forces intimidating protesters by videotaping them and threatening to arrest them, and in one instance saying, “Now, we know who you are.”

Iraq’s constitution guarantees “freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration,” though regulations imposed last year have “effectively impeded Iraqis from organizing lawful protests,” HRW said. The regulations require organizers to get written approval from both the minister of interior and the provincial governor before submitting an application to the relevant police department, not less than 72 hours before a planned event, according to HRW.

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