U.N. Documents Abductions and Torture Of Iraqi Protesters


May 23, 2020


Protesters have long said threats and abductions by militias were routine. United Nation investigators have begun to substantiate the claims.

Antigovernment protesters in Baghdad in November.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times


By Alissa J. Rubin | The New York Times


BAGHDAD – Hundreds of people were killed and thousands wounded in the antigovernment protests in Iraq last fall and winter that halted political life and immobilized cities from Baghdad to Basra.

In addition to that, more than 100 people were abducted, and some tortured, by armed groups opposed to the protests, according to a report released Saturday by the Human Rights Office of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq.

The report documented 99 cases of abductions and disappearances involving 123 victims, 25 of whom are still missing.

None of the perpetrators have been detained or tried for the crimes, the report said.

The report underscores that the complete toll of the violence against the protesters has yet to be fully documented, much less adjudicated. While some Iraqi security force members were among the victims, the vast majority of those killed or wounded were unarmed civilians.

Since the protests ended in February, a new government has taken office. One of the first acts of the new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, was to appoint a fact-finding committee to investigate the violence and to hold accountable the guilty and compensate the families of those killed and wounded.

He also ordered the release of all prisoners held on charges related to the protests unless they were charged with causing injury or death.

“I have not and will not issue any order to shoot any peaceful demonstrator and whoever does so will be brought to justice,” Mr. al-Kadhimi said in a news release on Tuesday, suggesting that he was taking a different approach from that of his predecessor, Adel Abdul Mahdi.

In addition to the 99 abductions cited in the report, and the nearly 500 people killed and nearly 8,000 wounded that have been previously reported, the report says there were others “assassinated by unidentified armed actors away from demonstration sites, those who remain missing, or who were harmed during abduction or detention.”

The report does not discuss those detained and interrogated by Iraqi security forces but focuses on those abducted by unidentified armed groups.

Some Iraqi politicians and security officials said privately that they believed that the militias that attacked demonstrators were linked to Iran, though the report does not specify which militias were involved.

Others close to the government and the Iraqi security forces dismiss the reports of abductions as the likely work of criminal gangs or people with grudges against an individual, but the United Nations report disputes that idea.

The report ruled out the involvement of “ordinary” criminal gangs in the cases they investigated because “no requests for ransom or other criminal motives were reported.”

Those abducted were all grabbed by several captors, forced into vehicles and most were blindfolded during their kidnapping, interrogation and detention.

“All male abductees described being subjected to various acts amounting to torture and/or ill treatment during ‘interrogation’ including severe beatings, electrocution, hosing/bathing in cold water hanging from the ceiling by the arms or legs,” the report says.

Women who were abducted said they were beaten, groped and threatened with rape, the report said.

Protesters from civil society backgrounds say the report substantiates what was common knowledge: that it was dangerous to be in the protest squares where demonstrations took place, and that militias with links to Iran and close ties to some factions in the Iraqi government would go to great lengths to shut them down.

“They didn’t just kidnap activists, they threatened people, anyone whom they thought had influence,” said Dr. Alqassim al-Abadi, a dentist and activist. “They threatened a lot of girls, those in the media, doctors, medical workers because they thought that the women would attract people to the protests.”

Dr. al-Abadi is still missing three friends who disappeared during the protests, including a lawyer named Ali Jaseb Hattab.

“We looked and looked for him,” Dr. al-Abadi said. “We contacted so many people, we contacted multiple governmental sources and security forces. We took his name and his mother’s name and we don’t have a clue what happened to him. We hope he is alive.”

Correction: May 23, 2020
In an earlier version of this article, captions of pictures about antigovernment protests in Iraq referred incorrectly to the month. It was November, not October.

Alissa Johannsen Rubin is the Baghdad Bureau chief for The New York Times.

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