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Iraq protesters have little faith new PM Kadhimi will pursue justice over killings

Though the new prime minister has intervened in some instances, security forces have continued to arrest and shoot demonstrators
Iraqi protesters run for cover as they clash with security forces on Al-Jumhuriyah bridge in the capital Baghdad, during an anti-government demonstration (AFP)

On Tuesday, police in Baghdad detained a shopkeeper after he said on Facebook that he had bribed an officer to allow him to keep his store open during the coronavirus lockdown.

In response, police officers forcibly shaved his head and beard, posting photos of the result on social media.

Though the interior ministry has said it is investigating the incident, for many Iraqis it illustrates the impunity with which the country’s security forces are allowed to operate - despite promises from the country's new prime minister that things will change.

Soon after coming into office, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi vowed to protect anti-government demonstrations, release imprisoned activists and shine a light on the repeated abuses meted out against them.

According to Hisham al-Mozani, an activist with the Iraqi al-Amal Association rights group, who has monitored the abuse of protesters since demonstrations began in October, none of those arrested have yet been released.

According to Mozani, authorities are holding protesters on serious charges apparently unrelated to protesting and often spuriously linked to the crimes in question.

"All the prisoners, they do not go to the court because they are protesters - they give them another charge like burning a hospital or shooting a police officer," he told Middle East Eye, speaking by phone from Baghdad.

"When we go to the court or go to the police officers or go to the jails, they say 'we don't have protesters in the jail' because all the cases are not designated protest cases."

He said that many people had been kept in jail under anti-terrorism legislation, which mandates harsh penalties for a wide range of offensives including threatening to "deliberately sabotage or wreck, ruin or damage buildings or public property, government interests, institutions, state departments, the private sector or public utilities and public places".

According to the Iraqi Human Rights Commission, at least 98 protesters have been detained in Iraq's state prisons, while dozens more remain missing.

Kadhimi said on 9 May that he would release all prisoners who were arrested while protesting as long as they had not be involved in bloodshed.

However, Iraq's High Judicial Council later announced that it would only release protesters if they had not committed any crimes. So far Kadhimi's promise is going unfulfilled.

As street protests have tentatively begun again following the loosening of the coronavirus lockdown, activists have once again had to face down police.

'When we go to the court or go to the police officers or go to the jails, they say 'we don't have protesters in the jail' because all the cases are not designated protest cases'

- Hisham al-Mozani, Iraqi Al-Amal Association

On Monday, four leading activists and lawyers were also arrested in the city of Diwaniyah. A demonstration in the city the following day was greeted with live ammunition.

The four arrested were released following an order from Kadhimi, something which Ammar al-Khazaaly, a protest leader in Diwaniyah, praised the new prime minister for.

"Kadhimi's intervention was good for solving this issue," he told MEE.

He also pointed out that there had been punishments handed down to a number of local officials in the wake of the 19 May attack.

However, "to date, legal cases are continuing" for arrested protesters.

"So far, we've had words and promises - we do not know how serious these words and promises are," Khazaaly said.

Gestures to the demonstrators could end up being crucial in preventing Kadhimi going the way of his predecessor, Adel Abdul Mahdi, who was driven from office by protests in December.

Failure to rein in the security services and militias will only harden the view of anti-government protesters that the premier is simply another interchangeable politician - and one who does not have the capability to fulfill his promises.

"When they saw that Kadhimi was not so powerful, they began arresting the protesters again," said Mozani.

'The protesters want the killers'

In seven months of protests, more than 550 people have been killed and thousands wounded. A number of activists have also been kidnapped and disappeared without trace.

Both the security services and armed groups associated with the powerful militias have been blamed for carrying out the attacks and kidnappings.

Politicians, including a former defence minister, have cryptically blamed a "third party" for a number of deaths.

Abductions have continued. Haider al-Lami, a prominent Baghdad activist, was kidnapped while returning home from the protest epicentre in Tahrir Square on 18 May, though he was later returned.

Kadhimi announced on 18 May that he had formed a committee with the aim to list the names of the "martyrs, the wounded, and the handicapped" between 1 October and 18 May, as a move towards "honouring the martyrs" and "compensating the families of the victims".

Maitham al-Khalkhali, a lawyer based in Najaf who has defended pro bono a number of protesters, said he found it hard to believe that Kadhimi would be able or willing to target those involved in killing protesters.

He pointed out that the "third party" allegations had originally been made while Kadhimi was head of the intelligence services, and yet there had been no moves to arrest or expose anyone.

"I believe that Kadhimi will find excuses to not arrest anyone in relation to those events, despite the fact that many of the victims were killed by men in uniforms as it was documented in videos that were all over the internet and social media," he told MEE.

Fars News Agency
Mustafa al-Kadhimi poses in a Hashd al-Shaabi uniform (Fars News Agency)

He said he believed there had been a culture of impunity during Kadhimi's tenure as chief intelligence officer with regards to attacks on protesters.

"The bullets, the tear gas canisters were fired by our security force. Even the unknown armed forces that assaulted the protesters, those assaults were in front of our national forces, police and army, yet they haven’t intervened to stop it," he said.

For Mozani, Kadhimi at this stage is someone seeking to "cool" the political situation in Iraq.

The new premier's candidacy has been supported by both the US and Iran, who have been increasingly embroiled in a proxy conflict in Iraq.

He pointed out that Kadhimi - previously critical of paramilitary forces in Iraq - had been keen to display public support for the Hashd al-Shaabi militias and would aim to make sure they "will not be accused and will not be followed up by the courts".

The make-up of Kadhimi's government - which like all previous governments since 2003 consists of a cross-section of Iraq's political class - also indicated that impunity was on the cards.

"The protesters want the killers, and we know the killers are a part of his government also," Mozani said. "So nothing’s changed."

Big protests coming

On Thursday, dozens of foreign workers were evacuated from Iraq after a gas facility in Basra was surrounded by protesters angry about late salary payments.

Coronavirus fears leave Iraq's anti-government protesters divided
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Basra has been gripped by unrest for a year longer than most of the rest of Iraq, and there are few signs that the fundamental issues - lack of jobs, corruption, poor public services, foreign intervention - have been resolved anywhere.

Activists have said there will likely be a mass swelling of protests following the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of Ramadan this weekend.

In order to prove himself to the demonstrators, Kadhimi would need to take serious measures, said Khalkhali, including "sending well-trained Iraqi troops to protect and secure the scene, preventing all militias and armed groups from joining the protests’ squares, and prosecuting all who assault the protesters physically, or spread rumours and urge the public to harm them".

Khazaaly said that there would soon be a "peaceful escalation", possibly after Eid.

"It will emphasise the main central demands: one, completing the electoral law; two, setting a date for early elections; three, prosecuting the killers of protesters," Khazaaly said.

He added that the protesters in each governorate had also all agreed to demand their local governor be removed from his position, and rule of the governorates be handed over to the Supreme Judicial Council.