x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Iranians target Iraqi fishermen

Iraqi fishermen claim to have been beaten, equipment destroyed and in danger of being forced out of business because of the harassment they endure.

BAGHDAD // The recent detention of 12 Iraqis by the Iranian coastguard has highlighted a simmering dispute in which Iraqi fishermen say they are the victims of a campaign of abuse and intimidation.

Iranian officials on Tuesday announced they had captured a dozen Iraqis found fishing illegally inside Tehran's territorial waters. Three of the men have since been released but the rest remained in Iranian custody, together with six Iraqi fishing boats. In a series of interviews carried out before the incident came to light, Iraqi fishermen in the southern province of Basra said harassment by Iranian naval forces is common, and increasingly included physical abuse.

Abdul Minaam Rahman, an Iraqi fishing boat crew member, said his vessel encountered an Iranian patrol in the mouth of the Shatt al Arab, where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers enter the Arabian Gulf on Iraq's southernmost tip. The border between Iran and Iraq runs down the middle of the waterway and is notoriously ill defined. "They ordered us to stop our engine at gunpoint and boarded our boat," Mr Rahman said of the incident, which he said took place two months ago. "They immediately broke the windows on the cabins and cut up our nets.

"Our captain was trying to co-operate with them and he got out the charts which proved we were in Iraqi national waters, but the Iranians tore them up." According to Mr Rahman, the Iranian forces were so angered by the production of the sea charts that they poured diesel over the Iraqi fishing crew. "It was humiliating and frightening," he recalled. "Before they left, they said if they found us in their waters again, they'd kill us."

Other Iraqi fishermen recounted similar experiences and, while impossible to independently confirm, they were supported by the Iraqi fishermen's union in Basra, and by local politicians. "There has been abuse, people have been beaten, equipment has been confiscated and destroyed by both the Iranian and the Kuwaiti coast guards," said Mohammad Daood Saloman, an official in the Basra-based Sinbad Fisherman's Association. "The Iranians are the worst and we believe they have killed 10 Iraqi fishermen, we have had that many people disappear."

His claims over the killings were not confirmed by local Iraqi officials. Mr Saloman admitted that Iraqi vessels did sometimes stray into Iranian waters, although he insisted it was not a regular occurrence and did not merit the harsh summary punishments he accused the Iranians of meting out. "There are accidental crossings of the border but we are certain that Iranian forces have crossed into Iraqi waters and abused us here," he said. "There is no excuse or justification for their actions. If mistakes are made, a friendly warning is sufficient."

Fishermen working the Iraqi coastline say they are in danger of being forced out of business by the harassment, and that they are frequently interdicted by the Iranian patrols at the end of a day's work, when their catch is confiscated. The Sinbad Association, together with local fishermen, complained that Iraqi authorities did nothing to protect them, and that the Iraqi navy appeared happy to let their Iranian counterparts control the waters. Iraq's forces only protected oil installations, they said.

Khairulla al Basri, an MP from Basra, said he had met with fishermen bearing signs of physical beatings at the hands of Iranian coastal patrols and that the fishing industry based on the al Faw peninsula was in danger of collapse because fishermen could no longer work safely. "They've come to complain to me and I've seen the bruises," he said. "I've raised this in parliament but have not had much response. The government is not fulfilling its obligations towards the fishermen."

Mr al Basri said he had spoken to the Iranian and Kuwaiti coast guards, both of which insisted they only approached Iraqi vessels that had strayed out of Baghdad's territorial waters. Both countries had complained to him about the absence of Iraqi coastguard patrols to enforce the frontier, he said. "Iran and Kuwait must respect the human rights of Iraqi fishermen, there is no need for abuse and humiliation," the MP said. "There needs to be education, for the Iraqi fishermen to help keep them in Iraqi waters, and for the Iranian and Kuwait patrols to stop abuse."

Following Tuesday's announcement by Iran over the detention of the 12 fishermen, senior Iranian coastguard official Yadollah Sharafi was quoted by the Fars News Agency as saying the Iraqis had ignored "repeated warnings" to fish only in their own waters. While Iraqi fisherman insist they have done no such thing, Hassan Rashid, the head of foreign relations in Basra provincial council, said illegal overfishing and frontier crossings were not uncommon.

"Iraqi waters are running out of fish and I believe the Iraqi fishermen do go into the Iranian side and the Kuwaiti side to try to get extra fish," he said. "I am also sure that many Iraqi fisherman really have no idea where our territorial waters end." Mr Rashid said he had also received complaints from fishermen about Iranian abuse. "I have raised the matter with the Iraqi foreign ministry but have had no satisfactory answer from them," he said. "We are also talking to the Kuwaiti and the Iranian governments about this but the problem is Iran is always very concerned about their waters.

"They tell us they do not abuse fishermen but I have seen the marks on their bodies from beatings." Mr Rashid said the only current option was to educate fisherman about the border, and to insist they remained in Iraqi waters. That suggestion offered little consolation to Iraq's fishermen. "We are abused and threatened and beaten," complained Qassim Mohammad, a boat crew member who says he suffered a broken rib and dislocated shoulder after his vessel was boarded by the Kuwaiti coastguard earlier this year. He has not been to sea since, instead staying on shore to repair nets and cook.

"I've always worked as a fisherman and I know very well where the border is," he said. "It is becoming impossible to work. I have a large family to feed and without fishing, no way of earning money." @Email:nlatif@thenational.ae