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Iraq: Justice for 800 Killed in October 2019 Protests Remains Elusive

By Cassandra Backx

October 2019 witnessed the start of a new popular protest movement in Iraq. However, security forces violently cracked down on the democratic protests resulting in over 800 fatalities. Three years on, the victims and their families still await accountability from the perpetrators.

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Peaceful protest meets violent crackdown

In October 2019, Iraqis nationwide took to the streets demanding economic and political reforms. The protests, among the largest since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, aimed to address the people’s economic grievances caused by mismanagement and corruption.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters demanded the government’s fall, which they eventually achieved. More broadly, however, they also called for the fall of the overarching governing system that was put in place after the US-led invasion.

Security forces and state-backed armed groups responded with disproportionate violence to the peaceful protests resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. However, this violence only further fueled the protests and launched the demand that those responsible for the casualties are held accountable. So far, only Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi has resigned and taken responsibility for the violence.


Violence ensues, accountability eludes

Not long after the protests in Iraq erupted, the COVID-19 pandemic put an abrupt end to the movement. Now the climate of persecution and restrictions to freedom of speech and civil activism still reigns. In addition, Iraqi activists involved in the uprising live in fear as armed assailants of unknown affiliation regularly target and assassinate their peers.

Iraq’s next Prime Minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, entered office promising to hold those responsible for the violence and the killings accountable. However, three years on, Al-Kadhimi’s administration and his successor, Mohammed Al-Sudani, have shown almost no initiative to prosecute the perpetrators.

This lack of initiative may be due to the fact that investigating agents were often involved in the violent incidents themselves. In a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the victims’ families remarked that security agents often did little to prevent the assassination of activists and essentially assisted assassins in some instances.


Impunity for human rights violations

Although the Iraqi authorities haven’t been able to deliver on their promise of legal accountability, they have provided financial compensation for the victims and their families. However, applying for these reparations is needlessly complicated and limited to a select number of people. It is grossly insufficient and does not adequately ensure accountability.

HRW addresses Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi and requests that the findings from the investigations are publicly released and that the perpetrators are held accountable at last. OHCHR has also expressed concern that the Iraqi authorities are essentially creating a climate of impunity for human rights violations if the perpetrators are not prosecuted.


ACHRS firmly condemns state violence against civil protesters and activists and encourages civil protest as exercising the right to freedom of speech. Killing protesters and dissidents is a violation of the basic human right to life and to freedom of speech.

The center shares HRW’s concerns and demands accountability from the perpetrators and justice for the victims. ACHRS demands Iraq and the MENA region as a whole recognize and respect civil liberties as fundamental human rights.


Picture Source: Anadolu Ajansı

(Human Rights Watch; OHCHR)

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