BAGHDAD // Demonstrators in Iraq are being tortured and intimidated by the security services into stopping anti-government protests, political activists say.
In recent weeks, those organising public rallies claim to have been targeted in a campaign of repression by security units, carrying out illegal arrests and abusive interrogations.
Among the allegations made by civil-rights activists are that government forces have beaten, shocked with electrical devices and fabricated criminal evidence against protesters involved in peaceful street rallies.
One organiser of demonstrations in Baghdad said he had been kidnapped by government agents and tortured with an electric cattle prod so severely that he suffered permanent kidney damage.
“I was on my way to meet friends last Friday when two men in plainclothes came right up to me, stuck a pistol in my belly and told me to go with them,” he said, asking that he be identified only as Abu Najar, out of fear of retribution.
By his account, they took him to a police station and questioned him about his involvement in a series of recent protests. In the course of the interrogation, three of his teeth were smashed, he was kicked and repeatedly subjected to electric shocks on his lower back.
“They asked me who was behind the protests, if it was one of the political parties, but I told them it was just us, just the normal people,” he recounted. “They didn’t like that, they beat me.”
After two days in a cell, without food, he was dragged out and told to sign a guarantee that he would not be involved in any more political agitation, he said. Only then was he freed, with a warning that he would not be let off so lightly next time.
As part of the ‘Arab Spring’, which has seen demonstrations erupt across the Middle East, thousands of Iraqis had taken to the streets, chastising the government for rampant corruption and its failure to deliver basic public services, almost nine years after the overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein.
In response, the authorities deployed army units against crowds with live ammunition and tear gas used to forcefully break up rallies.
Dozens of people were killed nationwide.
Amnesty International this month reported that protesters, journalists and opposition activists had been “threatened”, and that “repressive action” had been taken against students and academics in Iraq. It also noted that Iraqi security units have “frequently responded with excessive force to disperse peaceful protesters”.
On April 19, more than 30 civilians were reportedly killed by security forces at a demonstration in the northern city of Sulemaniya, an area administered by the autonomous Kurdish regional government, rather than the central authorities in Baghdad. International human-rights groups called for an independent investigation into the shootings.
In Baghdad, orders were issued two weeks ago that all future protests would only be allowed to take place in two sports stadiums, to prevent unrest breaking out on the capital’s streets. That move was heavily criticised by civil-rights advocates, who said it breaches constitutional guarantees to freely stage public demonstrations.
Baghdad Operations Command, in charge of security in the capital, said the step was being taken to prevent shops from having to close as a result of unrest.
At the same time as restricting the right to protest, security units have been carrying out a clandestine campaign of arrests, witnesses say.
Zakariyah Salam, a resident of Baghdad’s Adhamiyah neighbourhood, said two of his friends, both doctors, had been followed and stopped by security units on the way to a protest, then arrested after a hand grenade was found in their car.
Mr Salam insisted the authorities planted the explosives. “I was driving behind the car when they were stopped and arrested,” he said. “I was detained too but they let me go after I signed a pledge not to go to any other protests.
“I’m sure my friends were set up because when the security let me go they said, ‘if we see you again, we’ll find an rocket-propelled grenade in your bag and you’ll be in prison for a long time’.”
The authorities in Baghdad do not comment on specific cases but have repeatedly said they always act in accordance with the law and only arrest those who pose a threat to public safety.
However critics of the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, accuse him of using security forces and restrictive new legislation to stifle criticism of his leadership.
“Seeing how the rights of people to demonstrate peacefully have been limited does not make me feel optimistic for the future of Iraq’s democracy,” said Maysoon al Damlouji, a spokesperson for Iraqiyya, Mr al Maliki’s main political rivals.
Independent political analyst Ahmed al Jenabi said the Baghdad authorities were not behaving like a democratically elected government answerable to the people.
“The government says demonstrations must be restricted for public safety, because of the risk of terrorism,” he said.
“I remember Saddam Hussein saying the same thing in the late 1970s, on the grounds that there was a danger from Iran. History is repeating itself.
“The government isn’t really afraid of terrorists. It’s afraid of the people who oppose it peacefully through legal means because they do pose a threat to its power.”