More than 300 people have been killed in a month of protests in Iraq. Now protesters are increasingly going missing and multiple allegations of abductions have been reported.
Activists tell TRT World that the number of people ‘kidnapped’ during Iraq’s protests is increasing every day since the first documented abduction of medic and activist Saba al Mahdawi on her way to her home from Tahrir square on November 2.
Eyewitness say she was forcefully taken into a car by armed masked men.
Since October 1, thousands of protesters across Iraq have been demanding a complete change of the political system - what they see as the only solution to the country’s years-long corruption problem. In return, they have been met with violence. Live ammunition, tear gas canisters and smoke grenades have killed more than 319 people in less than two months.
An Iraqi NGO, al Namaa Center for Human Rights, tells TRT World that they were able to confirm that at least 10 more people were kidnapped between October 25 and November 25, but the number is likely to be higher as these numbers only include those who have been identified by name.
Two other names were confirmed by the International Federation for Human Rights. Among the names of those who have been identified so far most are activists who are passionate about human rights, vocal on social media, or helping protesters at Tahrir Square.
The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) on November 4 said that it recorded six cases of abduction of protesters but around a dozen activists who were interviewed say the number of people who were kidnapped or disappeared is much higher, but they say it is hard to get confirmation because of a lack of government reports.
Amnesty International tells TRT World that they’re currently working to verify and investigate other cases after launching an ‘Urgent Action’ calling on the government to clarify the whereabouts of Saba.
“A lot more people went missing and kidnapped at this period, but most of them are not activists so no one publishes anything about them on social media,” Adam, a volunteer from the fact-checking organisation Tech4Peace, who has been working to confirm the names of those abducted, tells TRT World.
Kidnapped to unknown
Now, some walls in the streets leading up to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square are covered with the pictures of those protesters who never made it home.
“Missing -- young Ali Kareem Sulaiman al Joraani has disappeared in Ma’amil area. He’s 18 years old, born in 2001. He has gone missing during the protests in Tahrir Square demonstrations,” reads one of the flyers with a phone number and a teenage boy’s picture on a wall in Baghdad.
But the lines between missing, abducted or arrested is currently blurry in Iraq, where Iran-backed militias, some of them allied to security forces, are widely blamed for the crimes against the protesters. No one knows if it’s independent groups that abducted protesters, or government-allied Iran backed militias, or worse: if they’re being killed.
Al Namaa tells TRT World that some of those who they confirmed as kidnapped are turning up in government detention centres. Five of them, including the well-known activist and medic Maytham al Helou, have returned home.
For Amnesty International’s Lynn Maalouf, arbitrarily being taken into custody by plainclothes individuals who are working for a security agency is also considered an abduction. At this stage, Amnesty sees a pattern emerging of the targeting of activists.
“What we are seeing in Iraq is mostly enforced disappearance carried out by the Iraqi authorities and in few cases abduction that is carried out by non-state actors,” Maalouf tells TRT World.
“In the latter case, it is still the responsibility of the Iraqi authorities to investigate and disclose the whereabouts of the abductees and hold those responsible accountable.”
Creating a culture of fear
Fear has taken its toll among Iraqis for some time now, especially since the disappearances.
Kidnapped activist Saba’s brother Ahmad previously told TRT World that he will stop attending protests because he is scared of the consequences. In Baghdad, and the southern cities where the protests spread, many of the protesters have been facing threats on social media or in-person while protesting.
Mohamed al Tamimi, a journalist based in Karbala says security forces were forcing families who ask about their children’s whereabouts to sign a paper promising that they won’t attend the protests again.
Adam from Tech4peace says families whose children were kidnapped refused to speak to him, to media, or even to their own relatives.
But for some of the activists, fear of kidnappings and arrests won’t stop them protesting.
“I’m originally from Karbala, but I had to flee to Baghdad because of the threats,” a protester, Zia tells TRT World. He says he was one of the organisers of the protests and now continues protesting even though he had to flee his city.
Another activist, Montazer al Zaidi tells TRT World that his brother Dhargam was kidnapped on November 6 by security forces, for protesting and helping out protesters by giving them medicine or food.
“His phone was shut down and we understood that he was kidnapped,” says Montazer, a journalist who shot to instant fame globally for throwing a shoe at former US President George W Bush during a press conference in 2008.
“I'm not scared of protesting even after my brother is kidnapped and the government and the Islamic parties stop the protesters. We don't care if they try to stop us. We're thinking about our people,” says al Zaidi.
He says that someone, possibly an activist, called him and told him that his brother was kept by the security forces and he will be released in a few days.
But it’s not possible to confirm whether that is true, with police refusing to give information to both al Zaidi and Saba’s family.
A few days after Saba al Mahdawi’s abduction, a rumour spread that she was back home. Her family told TRT World on November 12 that Saba has not returned home yet.