ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – A human rights monitor has accused Kurdish Asayish security forces of arbitrarily detaining protesters following anti-government demonstrations in the regions of Sulaimani and Halabja last December.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said some protesters were forced to sign statements promising not to criticize the government.
A Kurdish official said that some of the measures taken by the Kurdish security forces were "temporarily" to prevent the spread of violence.
Security forces also allegedly detained three journalists covering the anti-government protests, which called for the full payment of delayed or reduced salaries, a fight against widespread corruption, and better basic services such as electricity.
In some areas, buildings belonging to the Asayish and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) were set on fire.
In a report released on Wednesday, HRW said a number of detained protesters were not taken before a judge despite being held for up to eight days. They were also not allowed to contact their families or a lawyer, it said. Iraq’s Criminal Procedural Code states all detainees must go before a judge within 24 hours of arrest.
While in detention, HRW says some of the protesters were told to sign a document, which they were not allowed to read, pledging not to criticize the government on social media or join future protests.
At the time of the protests, Rudaw interviewed a number of people who claimed to have been held by the Asayish and suffered rights abuses.
Mahdi said he took part in the anti-government protests with a number of his friends. Shortly after, he was told the security forces had issued a warrant for his arrest. He decided not to return home.
The following day, a “masked Asayish force,” searched for him in his house, he said. They searched every part of the house and caused “panic” to his family.
Four days later he was arrested along with a number of other protesters.
Mahdi said the Asayish provided him with food while in solitary confinement, but he was soon interrupted before finishing his meal when the prison guards took him to another location.
“They took me out from my room, handcuffed me, and put a bag over my head,” Mahdi said.
They then walked him to another location within the same building where he was interrogated.
“After a short talk, they kicked, punched and slapped me,” Mahdi claimed.
HRW says its researchers interviewed 11 men who had taken part in protests in at least nine different cities and who had been detained by the Asayish.
“The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s response to protests goes far beyond its right to arrest and prosecute people responsible for violence,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at HRW.
“The KRG forces’ heavy-handed tactics appear to be an attempt to silence criticism despite the official narrative that the authorities respect citizens’ rights to speech and free assembly.”
“People in the Kurdistan Region have the same right as anyone anywhere to express their frustrations with the economic or political crisis peacefully.
“It is a sign of oppression when authorities try to force people to sign away their basic rights to protest and criticize.”
Two journalists were also interviewed by HRW. They told the monitor they were arrested while reporting on the protests in Koy Sanjaq and Halabja.
The journalist who says he was detained in Koy Sanjaq told HRW he was arrested on December 19. He said he worked for an unnamed opposition media outlet.
He told the monitor that during the protests Asayish forces “came over, took my microphone, camera, and cell phone and held me there for 30 minutes, even though I showed them my press pass. They then gave me my equipment back and I continued working.”
After he left the protest, he says a friend connected with the Asayish contacted him to say he was about to be arrested.
“After 15 days I returned home and turned myself in at the Asayish office, where they held me for three days before bringing me before a judge on charges of encouraging people to participate in demonstrations and inciting violence,” he said.
“I am currently home on bail but am too scared to go back to work, and too scared to leave home because I am worried for my family and my own security.”
In an email to HRW dated February 25, the KRG coordinator for international advocacy, Dr. Dindar Zebari, said: “Sulaimani security forces were extremely lenient and accommodating during the protests. A number of people were temporarily arrested to prevent the spread of violence while also helping to protect others, once the situation became stable they were immediately released without investigations or charges.
“The Asayish was very considerate of the arrestees’ situation, and although they had overlooked many laws being broken, their goal was restoring the peace, preventing violent outbreaks, and ensuring the safety of everyone present during the protesting process. Considering the above violent acts, the arrestees’ would have been tried and sentenced to at least 1-2 years of imprisonment.”
The KRG maintains that the loss of oil-fields in Kirkuk, and the continued budget cut by the Iraqi government since early-2014 means they have failed to pay the state salary in full or on time.