Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 December 2019

Iraqi government criticised at UN meeting as protest deaths continue

Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani says officials 'are not serious enough' to introduce reforms to calm unrest

Iraqi officials defended Baghdad's treatment of protesters after at least four more were killed and 130 wounded in clashes with security forces on Monday.

The violence came hours after Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi banned the use of live ammunition and violence against demonstrators.

The Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights described events in the southern city of Nasirayah as “regrettable” and said some of the wounded were in serious condition.

The casualties occurred during confrontations outside the education directorate as security forces used tear gas on protesters trying to block employees from reaching the building in the city centre.

Security forces have used live ammunition, tear gas and stun grenades against young, unarmed protesters, killing more than 320 and injuring 15,000 since the unrest over living conditions began on October 1.

At a UN review of member states' human rights records in Geneva, diplomats from several countries accused the Iraqi government of excessive force.

The Iraqi Justice Minister, Farooq Othman, acknowledged that there had been "individual violations" by security troops but said they were being investigated.

"Our constitution guarantees peaceful assembly and the objective of our authorities is to protect the protesters," Mr Othman told international diplomats gathered at the UN's Universal Periodic Review.

Other Iraqi officials said plans were under way to free detained protesters and for electoral reform, which were among a package of reforms urged by the UN.

But diplomats from several countries issued stinging criticism.

"We recommend that Iraq immediately cease using excessive force against peaceful demonstrators, particularly the unlawful use of tear gas canisters and live ammunition, and hold accountable, in a transparent manner, those responsible for this violence," said Daniel Kronenfeld, human rights counsellor at the US mission in Geneva.

The Netherlands called the use of force "unlawful, indiscriminate and excessive". Germany expressed deep concern and urged immediate steps to prevent further loss of life.

Mass protests calling for an overhaul of the political system established in 2003 have raged for more than a month in cities across the country, including Baghdad and Karbala.

Demonstrators said they faced arrest and threats to keep them away from Baghdad's Tahrir Square.

“I got a direct call saying do not return to the place where you’ve been working," Ahmed Mahder, 23, an activist and protester who has a significant following on social media, told The National.

"I didn’t know the number. They said we’ve seen you publish on Twitter and do not return.”

Mr Mahder has been one of the few protesters able to regularly post from the square using a foreign Simcard, after the government cut internet connection.

Regardless of the intimidation and threats they face, protesters are determined to stay in Tahrir Square.

“We’re not afraid,” said Haidar Thamer, 24, a film director and protester. "We will continue in these protests until they kill everyone from this generation. Then the protests will end.

"But it’s impossible that these protests will end because of fear."

The UN’s top envoy to Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, on Monday met with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani in the city of Najaf to discuss ways to resolve the protests and put together a list of reforms.

Ms Hennis-Plasschaert said Mr Al Sistani made it clear that he supports introducing serious reforms in a reasonable period of time.

"Within that context, he welcomes the proposals of the United Nations, including the proposal for one consolidated electoral framework," she said.

Ms Hennis-Plasschaert said the UN would monitor the government's progress to ensure measures were introduced "promptly, swiftly and decisively, because this country needs to move forward".

The UN mission in Iraq announced on Sunday night short and long-term measures aimed at handling protesters' demands, including electoral reform and anti-corruption initiatives.

These include a release of all detained peaceful protesters, investigations into killings, and declarations of assets by political leaders to address graft accusations.

Also included are corruption trials, electoral reforms and constitutional changes to make leaders more accountable within the next three months.

But Mr Al Sistani expressed "concern that the political forces are not serious enough to conduct these reforms", Ms Hennis-Plasschaert said.

"He also stressed that the demonstrators cannot go home without sufficient results."

Iraqi security forces try to disperse anti-government protesters on Monday. AP
Iraqi security forces try to disperse anti-government protesters on Monday. AP

Protesters reaffirmed that this was the case.

“We don’t want reforms, we don’t want this government at all," said student Ali Shuhany, 21. "We want a new government, a transparent government.

“The protests will continue until we get those rights."

Like many protesters, Mr Thamer called on the UN to intervene to prevent the violence from worsening.

“A young man who hasn’t seen anything in his life and he is gone in an instant. A young man,” he said.

“Isn’t it necessary that human rights organisations intervene? Isn’t it necessary for the bullets to stop? Isn’t it necessary for the suppression to stop?”

The US on Monday echoed the UN's call for early elections and electoral reforms, and called on the government to stop using violence against protesters.

The White House on Sunday urged "the Iraqi government to halt the violence against protesters and fulfil President [Barham] Salih's promise to pass electoral reform and hold early elections".

"The United States is seriously concerned by continued attacks against protesters, civic activists and the media, as well as restrictions on internet access, in Iraq," it said.

Mr Salih proposed an early ballot after reforms but his suggestion seems to have been dismissed by the country's political class.

Iraqi leaders said on Sunday that electoral reforms should give more opportunities for young people to take part in politics.

Updated: November 12, 2019 10:30 AM

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