Reviewing the events of 2011, Human Rights Watch's annual world report, released Sunday, concluded that Iraq is intensifying a harsh crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly. -- The organization's Middle East director said the country "is quickly slipping back into authoritarianism." -- “Despite U.S. government assurances that it helped create a stable democracy," she said, "the reality is that it left behind a budding police state.” -- Reporting on the statement, the Associated Press refrained from mentioning the fact that the U.S. called its war in Iraq "Operation Iraqi Freedom" -- indeed, it never mentioned the war at all. -- But AP did report that "'Iraqis are quickly losing ground on the most basic of rights, including the right to free speech and assembly,' said Samer Muscati, an Iraq researcher for [Human Rights Watch]. 'Nowadays, every time someone attends a peaceful protest, they put themselves at risk of attack and abuse by security forces or their proxies.'" ...
IRAQ: INTENSIFYING CRACKDOWN ON FREE SPEECH, PROTESTS
** Torture, Secret Prisons, Attacks on Demonstrators and Journalists Remain Iraqi Reality **
Human Rights Watch
January 22, 2012
BAGHDAD -- Iraq cracked down harshly during 2011 on freedom of expression and assembly by intimidating, beating, and detaining activists, demonstrators, and journalists, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2012.
In February, Human Rights Watch uncovered a secret detention facility controlled by elite security forces who report to the military office of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The same elite divisions controlled Camp Honor, a separate facility in Baghdad where detainees were tortured with impunity.
“Iraq is quickly slipping back into authoritarianism as its security forces abuse protesters, harass journalists, and torture detainees,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Despite U.S. government assurances that it helped create a stable democracy, the reality is that it left behind a budding police state.”
In its 676-page World Report 2012, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including popular uprisings in the Arab world that few would have imagined. Given the violent forces resisting the “Arab Spring,” the international community has an important role to play in assisting the birth of rights-respecting democracies in the region, Human Rights Watch said in the report.
In the weeks before the last convoy of U.S. troops left Iraq on December 18, Iraqi security forces rounded up hundreds of Iraqis accused of being former Baath Party members, most of whom remain in detention without charge. A political crisis and a series of terrorist attacks targeting civilians have rocked the country in the weeks since the U.S. troop pullout.
During nationwide demonstrations to protest widespread corruption and demand greater civil and political rights in February, security forces violently dispersed protesters, killing at least 12 on February 25, and injuring more than 100. Baghdad security forces beat unarmed journalists and protesters that day, smashing cameras and confiscating memory cards.
In June, in one of the worst incidents, government-backed thugs armed with wooden planks, knives, and iron pipes, beat and stabbed peaceful protesters and sexually molested female demonstrators as security forces stood by and watched, sometimes laughing at the victims.
In May, the Council of Ministers approved a Law on the Freedom of Expression of Opinion, Assembly, and Peaceful Demonstration, which authorizes officials to restrict freedom of assembly to protect “the public interest” and in the interest of “general order or public morals.” The law still awaits parliamentary approval.
Freedom of expression fared little better as security forces routinely abused journalists covering demonstrations, using threats, arbitrary arrests, beatings, and harassment, and confiscating or destroying their equipment. On September 8, an unknown assailant shot to death Hadi al-Mahdi, a popular radio journalist often critical of government corruption and social inequality, at his home in Baghdad. Immediately before his death, al-Mahdi had received several phone and text message threats not to return to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, which was the focal point for the weekly demonstrations. Earlier, after attending the February 25 “Day of Anger” mass demonstration, security forces arrested, blindfolded, and severely beat him and three other journalists during a subsequent interrogation.
In January 2012, Human Rights Watch observed that Iraqi authorities had successfully curtailed the Tahrir Square anti-government demonstrations by flooding the weekly protests with pro-government supporters and undercover security agents. Dissenting activists and independent journalists for the most part said that they no longer felt safe attending the demonstrations.
“After more than six years of democratic rule, Iraqis who publicly express their views still do so at great peril,” Whitson said. “Al-Mahdi’s killing highlights what a deadly profession journalism remains in Iraq.”
Prison brutality, including torture in detention facilities, was a major problem throughout the year. In February, Human Rights Watch uncovered, within the Camp Justice military base in Baghdad, a secret detention facility controlled by elite security forces who report to al-Maliki’s military office. Beginning in late 2010, Iraqi authorities transferred more than 280 detainees to the facility, which was controlled by the Army’s 56th Brigade and the Counter-Terrorism Service.
The same elite divisions controlled Camp Honor, a separate facility in Baghdad where detainees were tortured with impunity. More than a dozen former Camp Honor detainees told Human Rights Watch that detainees were held incommunicado and in inhumane conditions, many for months at a time. Detainees said interrogators beat them; hung them upside down for hours at a time; administered electric shocks to various body parts, including the genitals; and repeatedly put plastic bags over their heads until they passed out from asphyxiation.
“Security forces in Iraq, particularly in detention facilities, violate rights with impunity, and the government too often looks the other way,” Whitson said. “The government needs to ensure that there will be genuine criminal investigations and prosecutions of anyone responsible for torture or other abuses.”
HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: IRAQ BECOMING 'POLICE STATE'
January 22, 2012
BAGHDAD -- Iraq's Shiite-led government cracked down harshly on dissent during the past year of Arab Spring uprisings, turning the country into a "budding police state" as autocratic regimes crumbled elsewhere in the region, an international rights groups said Sunday.
Iraqi security forces routinely abuse protesters, harass journalists, torture detainees and intimidate activists, Human Rights Watch said in the Iraq chapter of its annual report.
"Iraq is quickly slipping back into authoritarianism," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for the New York-based group. "Despite U.S. government assurances that it helped create a stable democracy (in Iraq), the reality is that it left behind a budding police state."
Iraqi officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Protests against Iraq's U.S.-backed and democratically elected government erupted around the country in February 2011, partly inspired by demonstrations elsewhere in the Arab world.
While protests in other countries demanded the downfall of autocratic regimes, most of the demonstrations in Iraq pushed for improved services like reliable electricity and water, and an end to corruption.
The government clamped down, sometimes leading to bloodshed -- 14 people were killed in clashes between security forces and civilians across the country during the Feb. 25 protests billed as the "Day of Rage."
A year later, with U.S. troops withdrawn and Iraq's government mired in a political crisis, anti-government protests have all but died out. The few demonstrators who still gather in Baghdad's central Tahrir Square on Fridays are usually outnumbered by the security forces watching over them.
"Iraqis are quickly losing ground on the most basic of rights, including the right to free speech and assembly," said Samer Muscati, an Iraq researcher for the group. "Nowadays, every time someone attends a peaceful protest, they put themselves at risk of attack and abuse by security forces or their proxies."
Prison brutality, including torture in detention facilities, was a major problem throughout the year, the group's report said.
In February 2011, Human Rights Watch uncovered a secret detention center controlled by elite forces who reported to the prime minister's military office.
The group claimed authorities transferred more than 280 detainees to the facility since the beginning of 2010 and charged detainees were tortured there with impunity. Government officials denied the facility's existence and alleged abuses.
Just days before the U.S. military withdrew its last troops from the country last month, authorities rounded up hundreds of Iraqis suspected of having links to the deposed Baath Party, the group said in its report. It added that at least 600 of those detained in the sweep remain in custody without being charged.
Since the U.S. withdrawal, Iraq has plunged into a worsening political crisis that pits the country's majority Shiites against the minority Sunnis.
The escalating political battle erupted after the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, issued an arrest warrant against the Sunni vice president, Tareq al-Hashemi, on terrorism charges. Al-Hashemi denies the charges and has fled to the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, out of reach from Baghdad authorities.
Two other top Sunni officials were detained on terrorism charges earlier this week, prompting Ayad Allawi, the leader of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc to accuse al-Maliki of unfairly targeting Sunni politicians and deliberately triggering a political crisis to cement his own grip on power.
Allawi, who is a Shiite, said on Wednesday that Iraq needs a new prime minister or new elections to prevent the country from disintegrating along sectarian lines.
An aide to Allawi told the Associated Press that 89 Iraqiya members have been detained in the past three months by security forces on terrorism-related charges. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
The political crisis has been coupled with a surge in violence that has killed more than 160 people since the beginning of the year.
On Sunday, gunmen attacked a checkpoint near Baqouba, a former al-Qaida stronghold north of Baghdad, killing three members of the security forces, police officials in Diyala province said.
The officials said that two of dead were members of the pro-government Sunni militia known as the Awakening Council. Hospital staff in Baqouba confirmed the death toll.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.