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Attacks by government-backed thugs chill protests

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Baghdad, June 30, 2011 - Iraqi authorities should order a prompt and impartial inquiry into the role of state security forces in attacks by pro-government gangs against peaceful demonstrators in Baghdad on June 10, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. The groups of mainly young men, armed with wooden planks, knives, iron pipes, and other weapons, beat and stabbed peaceful protesters and sexually molested female demonstrators, witnesses told Human Rights Watch.

In the days following the attack, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 25 demonstrators who said they were punched, beaten with sticks or other weapons, or stabbed during the June 10 assault. Human Rights Watch observed and witnesses said that security forces stood by and watched in several instances. Several organizers told Human Rights Watch that the attacks have had a severe chilling effect on people exercising their right to peaceful assembly. In the two Friday demonstrations since then, on June 17 and 24, many regular protesters and organizers have stopped attending the demonstration, mainly because of fear of attacks, they said.

"Instead of protecting peaceful demonstrators, Iraqi soldiers appear to be working hand in hand with the thugs attacking them," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The Iraqi government needs to investigate why the security forces stood by and watched as thugs beat and sexually molested protesters - and take action against those who did so."

Two separate Defense Ministry sources told Human Rights Watch that a ministerial order authorized more than 150 plainclothes security forces from both the police and army to infiltrate the June 10 protests. The sources indicated that the government was worried about increased numbers of demonstrators on that date because the 100-day period for improvements that Prime Minister Nuri al-Malaki had promised in February would have ended.

During the attacks, four government supporters, some carrying planks and chasing after demonstrators, identified themselves to Human Rights Watch as members of Iraqi security forces. Two others showed Human Rights Watch concealed Interior Ministry police ID badges. "It's not every day that thugs with clubs flash their police IDs at us," Stork said. "The government needs to find out who was responsible for the assaults and punish them appropriately."

Protesters told Human Rights Watch that when they arrived at Baghdad's Tahrir Square on June 10 for regular Friday demonstrations against the government, they found the area already occupied by thousands of government supporters and hundreds of army troops. Human Rights Watch saw the government supporters threaten and then attack unarmed protesters.

The assailants also assaulted at least eight female demonstrators by beating and groping them or attempting to remove their clothing, and taunting them as "whores" and using other sexually degrading terms.

Despite the tight security surrounding the protest site, Human Rights Watch witnessed multiple instances in which government supporters chased and beat protesters as army troops stood by. In some cases, the soldiers laughed as they watched. Uniformed Iraqi soldiers also handed out food and beverages to the government supporters, including frozen bottles of water, some of which were used to beat protesters.

As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iraq is obligated to protect the right to life and security of the person, and the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch received no response from a government spokesman to requests for information about the involvement of security forces in the June 10 attack.

"Prime Minister Maliki's government has an obligation to protect people peacefully exercising their right to free expression and assembly," Stork said. "The US and other governments claiming to support democratic reform and accountability should press the Iraqi government to stop these inexcusable assaults."

Click here for more information and details about the attacks

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