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Iraqi army shootings that killed nine protesters yet to be investigated

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) – Iraqi authorities should complete promised investigations into the army killings of nine protesters in Fallujah on January 25, 2013, and make the results public, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities need to ensure that there will be independent investigations into the deaths, in addition to the promised inquiries by a parliamentary committee and the Defense Ministry, and that if there is evidence of unlawful killing, those responsible are prosecuted.

In the January 25 incident, protesters threw stones at army troops, who responded with live fire.

“Iraqi authorities seem to think that announcing an investigation is all that's required when security forces kill protesters,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to show it will not tolerate abuses by making public the results of the investigation and ensuring that those responsible are investigated and prosecuted for any unlawful use of lethal force.”

Demonstrations have been a regular occurrence in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, and in other parts of Iraq since December 20, 2012, when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered the arrest of 10 of Finance Minster Rafi al-Essawi's bodyguards. Demonstrators responded with largely peaceful gatherings, protesting what they said was the government's unfair treatment of Sunnis and calling for reforms to address incarceration of Sunnis with little or no evidence.

The January 25 violence erupted during a sit-in in Fallujah, one of many sites of regular demonstrations in Anbar province. Based on media and witness accounts, demonstrators and army troops clashed when protesters threw stones at soldiers as they made their way to the sit-in. The army's response culminated in soldiers firing live rounds, killing seven people, according to these accounts. Another two people who were wounded in the shootings died later from their injuries.

Iraqi media reports said that unknown assailants had killed two Iraqi soldiers earlier in the day at the al-Nemiya checkpoint. Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani confirmed the protesters' deaths but said that security forces had killed two of the people earlier in the day as they attacked the checkpoint, and that demonstrators later brought them to the sit-in site to be counted among those killed by the army shootings.

Witness statements and media footage indicate that demonstrators threw stones at soldiers and burned an empty army vehicle. Some witnesses said the soldiers could have avoided being harmed without resorting to lethal force. Human Rights Watch spoke with three protesters and a soldier. They offered differing accounts of the clashes, although all agreed that the army fired, hitting members of a crowd of several hundred protesters after the protesters began throwing rocks in the direction of an army checkpoint near the highway.

The protesters said that they outnumbered the soldiers, but threw rocks at the soldiers from a great distance. Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that although the protesters threw rocks, they were not armed and were not threatening the lives of Iraqi soldiers.

The soldier said that, angered by reports of the earlier attack at an army checkpoint, soldiers fired into the air, unintentionally killing demonstrators, and that soldiers withdrew when demonstrators began throwing rocks. Human Rights Watch could not independently confirm the precise sequence of events or number of casualties.

Human Rights Watch also spoke with an employee at Fallujah's main hospital, who said that the hospital treated 45 people shot at the demonstrations that day.

In the days that followed, official statements vacillated between expressing regret for the deaths and justifying the army's conduct, blaming the attack that killed two soldiers elsewhere in Fallujah earlier in the day. The Defense Ministry at first condemned the shootings and negotiated with the Anbar Provincial Council to remove troops from protest locations throughout the province. Later, however, the Defense Ministry and al-Maliki issued statements that variously claimed the shootings were in retaliation for the armed attack on soldiers, urged security forces to exercise “patience,” and expressed condolences for the protesters who were killed and injured.

Immediately after the shootings, al-Shahristani, head of a ministerial committee formed in December to address protesters' demands, said that two of those killed at the demonstration were al Qaeda members. His statements said that security forces had killed the two when they carried out the earlier attack on a different checkpoint, and that demonstrators later carried their corpses to the square so that they could be counted as victims of the protest.

Later on the day of the shooting, a Defense Ministry spokesman, Mohammed al-Askari, said the ministry was “keen to question the violators within its ranks regarding the accident of Fallujah.” On January 29, the Defense Ministry announced it was opening a new investigation into the events and intended to prosecute any soldiers found responsible for unlawful behavior. On January 30, Hussein al-Mahdani, a member of parliament, said that a parliamentary committee had formed to investigate and would “announce the names of culprits from both the army and demonstrators,” “within 48 hours.”

As of February 14, neither the Defense Ministry nor the parliamentary committee had released results. Despite repeated requests from Human Rights Watch, officials in the Defense Ministry could not provide information on the status of the investigations. Al-Shahristani told Human Rights Watch that he had “received verbal information from” the Defense Ministry that it had established yet another investigatory committee, in tandem with a National Security Committee, to “expand the investigation,” but that he had no knowledge of the status of the investigation. Human Rights Watch spoke with several members of parliament and of civil society, who requested anonymity, and who said that they had received no indications from the Defense Ministry or the parliamentary committee that they had undertaken investigations.

The parliamentary investigative committee's failure to release the results of its “48 hour report” after two-and-a-half weeks calls into question the transparency and impartiality of the investigatory committee. In addition, the government's claims that the shootings were in response to the attack at the checkpoint show the need for an independent and transparent investigation, leading to the identification and prosecution of anyone who committed a crime, Human Rights Watch said.

“There can rarely be justification for using lethal force against unarmed protesters,” Stork said. “The fact we have not seen the results of any of the announced investigations suggests the authorities aren't committed to ensuring justice for the people killed.”

In policing situations, security forces may use lethal force only when it is strictly necessary to protect life. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials state that security forces in such context shall “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that “whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.”

The Basic Principles state that “Governments shall ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense under the law.” Military forces, when performing law-enforcement functions, are also governed by these rules.

Human Rights Watch said that the authorities' initial promise to investigate the incident was a positive change from al-Maliki's warning on December 31 that he would “not tolerate protests,” which he called “unconstitutional.” This was the first incident of violence by security forces against demonstrators in nearly two months of regular demonstrations in several cities. Authorities should follow through on their promise to investigate the January 25 Fallujah shootings, Human Rights Watch said.

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