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Human Rights Defenders Condemn Iraqi Government After Security Forces Kill at Least 44 People in Anti-Corruption Protests

"Instead of meeting these protests with arbitrary and excessive force, authorities must address protesters' grievances and the root causes of the unrest in a sustainable manner."

Protesters stand amidst tear gas fumes as they clash with Iraqi riot police during a demonstration against state corruption and poor services, between the capital Baghdad's Tahrir Square and the high-security Green Zone district, on October 1, 2019. (Photo: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

Human rights organizations joined Iraq's top Shiite cleric in condemning the Iraqi government on Friday for its violent response to protests in Baghdad and a number of southern cities after security forces killed at least 44 people in nationwide anti-government protests.

On Friday, according to Middle East Eye, police snipers fired at protesters from rooftops, hitting at least one person in the neck. The demonstrators were gathered in central Baghdad to demand jobs and government services.

Amnesty International called on the government to transparently hold security forces accountable for the protesters' deaths.

"It is sorrowful that there have been so many deaths, casualties, and destruction... Lawmakers hold the biggest responsibility for what is happening."
—Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani

"It is outrageous that Iraqi security forces time and again deal with protesters with such brutality using lethal and unnecessary force," said Amnesty's Middle East research director, Lynn Maalouf. "It is crucial that the authorities ensure a fully independent and impartial investigation into the security forces' use of needless or excessive force, which has led to the tragic deaths of protesters and scores of others being injured."

Since protests erupted countrywide on Tuesday, security forces have fired live ammunition, tear gas, and water cannons into crowds of thousands of demonstrators.

The country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, blamed the government for the violence and the conditions—including high unemployment, especially among the young people who make up a majority of iraq's population; poor electricity and water services; and persistent government corruption—that sparked the unrest.

"It is sorrowful that there have been so many deaths, casualties, and destruction," al-Sistani said in a letter read during a sermon in the holy city of Karbala on Friday. "The government and political sides have not answered the demands of the people to fight corruption or achieved anything on the ground."

"Lawmakers hold the biggest responsibility for what is happening," he added, calling on the government to enact "practical and clear steps" to more fairly represent and serve the public, confront the 25 percent unemployment rate among young people, and end government corruption.

Although oil revenues are high in Iraq, the windfall has not made its way into job creation or necessary services for working people.

"After decades of war and sanctions, the country's infrastructure is still decrepit, cities are in ruins, and there are few employment opportunities for a population of 40 million," wrote Azhar Al-Rubaie at the Middle East Eye on Friday. "Protesters say funds are being siphoned off by political parties who have a firm grip on power in Baghdad."

Demonstrators shared their dissatisfaction and fears for the future of the country in a video posted to social media by Deutsche Welle.

"We Iraqis are calling for our rights, this is all we want," one young man said. "We want jobs. What have you [politicians] done to us? You have pushed us backwards."

Around the world, Iraqis gathered in solidarity outside embassies and consulates.

The protests are the largest nationwide anti-government actions since Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi took office a year ago with the support of Shia parties who have controlled the country since the U.S. invasion in 2003. 

"Since 2003 until now, Shia power offers nothing to Iraqis," protester Hussein Al-Asaadi told Middle East Eye. "We will never trust this government anymore, such a dictatorial government!"

As protests escalated on Wednesday, the government blocked access to WhatsApp, Instagram, and other social media in an effort to quash the demonstrations. It also imposed curfews on three southern cities and in Baghdad. The Iraqi Army and special forces deployed to Baghdad on Thursday after thousands of people defied the curfew.

Maalouf denounced the blocking of social media as "draconian."

The measures "underscore the lengths to which the government is prepared to go to silence protests away from cameras and the world's eyes," she said. "By doing so, authorities blatantly violate domestic and international laws that they have committed to respecting, including the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression."

Amnesty International also criticized the government for ignoring years of protests and public dissatisfaction.

"The yearly recurrence of these protests goes to show that the underlying drivers of these protests will remain as long as they are not meaningfully addressed," said Maalouf. "Instead of meeting these protests with arbitrary and excessive force, authorities must address protesters' grievances and the root causes of the unrest in a sustainable manner."

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