Authorities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq attempted to quell anti-corruption protests on 5 and 6 August by pre-emptively arresting dozens of journalists and political figures, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Sunday.
Citing worsening poverty and economic conditions under the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) government, the opposition New Generation Movement called for demonstrations in Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Duhok, the three largest governorates in the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).
Security forces responded by arresting dozens of journalists, activists and politicians ahead of the demonstrations, and targeting press workers while also suppressing crowds with tear gas once the demonstrations had begun, Human Rights Watch said.
Rahman Gharib, director of the media monitoring organisation Metro Center, told Human Rights Watch that Iraqi security forces targeted 60 journalists and media outlets during the protests, committing 78 rights violations.
Sirwan Gharib, editor of independent news site Westga News, said the KRI’s internal security forces, the Asayish, were waiting for protesters and press at the square where protests had been called. Security officers quickly arrested Gharib and his crew, releasing them without charges hours later.
“We were all taken in a minibus to Asayish security offices, where they confiscated our mobile phones and treated us like criminals,” he said. “But covering the news is a fundamental right, not a crime. During the investigation they told me that we didn’t have permission [to cover the protests]. I told them that I am a journalist, and that when covering demonstrations, I don’t need permission.”
Meanwhile, 86 members of the New Generation Movement were arrested prior to and during the protests, one of the party’s leaders, Taha Ahmed Saeed, told Human Rights Watch.
Saeed said he was held for four days until he paid bail after being accused of inciting the protests. He was not informed whether he had any pending charges upon his release.
Asayish officers also detained three Iraqi members of parliament, including New Generation Movement MP Rebwar Abdul Rahman, who said they were picked up while making their way to the protests and later released without charges.
“At 4:30 p.m., Asayish arrested the three of us just 200 meters away from the protest square,” Abdul Rahman told Human Rights Watch. “They put us in a minibus and drove us around the city for four hours, then they dropped us off on 60th Street. [The security forces] didn’t show us an arrest warrant, they just told us that they have orders to arrest us. They just didn’t want the protest to happen.”
“Using arbitrary repression to quell protests and intimidate activists and journalists is a recipe for spreading further grievance among KRI residents,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The better way to address public anger is to ensure respect for basic rights and freedoms, including the right to peaceful protest.”
The Kurdistan regional authorities regularly use regional laws such as those prohibiting sharing private or sensitive information on the internet against journalists and political activists, Human Rights Watch said.