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One dead as Iraqi police forces open fire on protesters in Mosul

Iraqi Sunni Muslims take part in an anti-government demonstration in Mosul on 1 March 2013, a week earlier
Iraqi Sunni Muslims take part in an anti-government demonstration in Mosul on 1 March 2013, a week earlier

REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousuly

Iraqi authorities should order an immediate, transparent, and independent investigation into lethal police and army shootings of anti-government protesters on March 8, 2013, and others in recent weeks, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should also ensure that those responsible for unlawful killings or excessive force are brought to justice.

Police may have killed one person and wounded others when they fired on protesters in Mosul on March 8, 2013. Soldiers who opened fire on demonstrators in Fallujah on January 25 killed nine people. Human Rights Watch on March 9 interviewed witnesses to the Mosul shootings, who said soldiers also searched and harassed demonstrators as they approached the protest site and tried to prevent ambulances from carrying away wounded people.

“Iraqi authorities need to intervene before further lives are lost,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Security forces are repeatedly opening fire on protesters. The government needs to find out why and hold anyone responsible for excessive use of force to account.”

The March 8 protest in Mosul was one of the ongoing regular demonstrations that have gripped Iraq's predominantly Sunni provinces since December 2012, when government security forces arrested 10 bodyguards of Finance Minister Rafi al-Essawi, a Sunni. The demonstrations, called to protest what the Sunni demonstrators say is their unfair treatment by the government and the imprisonment of Sunnis on little or no evidence, were initially largely without incident . On January 25, however, soldiers fired at protesters in Fallujah after they threw rocks at soldiers, killing nine. Since then, soldiers and police have fired on several demonstrations, including the one in Mosul on March 8. One protester, Mahmoud Saleh Yassin, died and nine others were wounded.

Witnesses to the Mosul shootings told Human Rights Watch that federal police officers opened fire with live ammunition after protesters began throwing stones at them. It is unclear whether the police gave any warning before opening fire. This contrasts with the version of events provided by the Interior Ministry later that day, which accused “infiltrators” among the protesters with Kalashnikov rifles of starting the shooting and provoking the use of live fire by the federal police. The ministry said it had appointed an investigative committee to look into the matter further but was silent as to whether police fire had killed Yassin.

General Mehdi al-Gharawy, head of the 3rd Division of the federal police, whose officers opened fire in Mosul, gave yet another account in a video uploaded to YouTube. In the video he discusses the shooting but makes no reference to “infiltrators,” suggesting instead that demonstrators had “tried to burn the riot police car or get control of it” and that riot police were “the first security forces who had contact with the demonstrators.” He also claims that Yassin had not been killed in Mosul's Ahrar Square, where the shooting took place. “Believe me, if the dead body was inside the square, everybody would be able to show it in the media,” he said. “This body came from outside the square.”

The police chief's claims echo assertions that Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani made in January, following the killings of protesters by the army at Fallujah, when he accused demonstrators of bringing the bodies of two insurgents killed at a checkpoint to add to those of the protesters shot dead by the army.

Three witnesses to the Mosul shootings interviewed by Human Rights Watch all said they had seen no firing from among the protesters though they agreed that protestors had thrown stones in the direction of the police. They said that soldiers insulted and verbally provoked the demonstrators as they approached Ahrar Square, while 150 to 200 police stationed at what protesters refer to as the square's “new gate,” which gives access to the square, searched those passing through and threatened them with arrest.

The witnesses said the police pressed forward when some demonstrators began throwing stones at them, then began firing. The witnesses did not see Yassin hit, but one of the witnesses was in the square when Yassin was shot in both legs. The witnesses said the police initially tried to prevent ambulances from entering the square so the wounded had to be carried out to them.

“Given the seriousness of these events and the differing official and other accounts, it is especially important for the government to set up a thorough independent inquiry to find out exactly what happened and who is responsible for the death and injuries,” Stork said. “An Interior Ministry investigation is not independent as it will appoint and report to the same people who were ultimately in charge of the police involved.”

A parliamentary committee was appointed to investigate after the January 25 killings by the army in Fallujah, but it has yet to disclose its findings.

Under international law, security forces engaged in policing operations are permitted to use lethal force only in exceptional circumstances, when it is strictly necessary to protect their own lives or the lives of others. Even then, according to the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, the primary international standard, security forces are required to use force and firearms only as a last resort, after less violent means have failed, and to exercise restraint to minimize damage, injury and loss of life.

The UN Principles oblige governments to treat arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials – including soldiers when engaged in policing operations – as crimes punishable under the law.

“The Iraqi government should ensure that its police and other security forces engaged in policing and crowd control understand how they should respond and are trained for these operations so they can follow the standards set down in international law,” Stork said. “They should be defusing tensions at demonstrations and protests, using the least force necessary, not pouring fuel on the flames by rushing to use lethal or other excessive force.”

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