Attacks on media, activists spur fears in Iraq

AP News
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Posted: Mar 08, 2011 9:34 AM
Attacks on media, activists spur fears in Iraq

A surge of protests against Iraq's U.S.-backed democratic government has provoked a violent crackdown on demonstrators and journalists that is raising concerns about a rollback of civil liberties throughout the country.

In recent weeks, journalists and activists have been detained and beaten by Iraqi security forces, TV and radio stations attacked in the dead of night, and protesters blocked from getting to demonstrations. In the most serious incidents, an Iraqi reporter claims he was tortured with electricity and three people who went to a protest turned up dead the next morning.

The attacks on journalists have sparked a rare public demand by the American government for accountability.

"We call on the Iraqi Government and Kurdistan Regional Government authorities to follow through on their pledges to investigate these incidents fully, and punish the perpetrators," the embassy said Monday.

The crackdown has raised doubts about how committed Iraq really is about protecting human rights and freedom of speech and what type of country U.S. troops will leave behind when they depart later this year.

"Iraq is going backwards, by all means, and in all aspects. The freedom of speech is in a very dire situation. People are afraid," said Shirouk Abayachi, director of the Baghdad-based Iraqiyat Center for Studies and Development.

Demonstrations inspired by unrest in Tunisia and Egypt have been held in cities and towns across Iraq almost daily since mid-February, demanding mostly better government services, an end to corruption and more jobs.

Fourteen people were killed during Feb. 25 protests billed as the "Day of Rage," which saw confrontations between security forces and Iraqis across the country.

The government has tried to respond by firing unpopular regional governors and delaying the purchase of jet fighters to divert money to food, among other measures. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has cut his own salary and promised to only serve two terms.

Al-Maliki last week called for an investigation of abuses of protesters and vowed to protect journalists. But he's also painted the people who do take part in the protests in a bad light by at one point saying they were backed by al-Qaida and supporters of former dictator Saddam Hussein.

The harassment that protesters, activists and journalists say they've undergone has been extensive:

_ In the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, the bodies of three protesters turned up the day after the Feb. 25 demo. Police said all three took part in the demonstration. They were shot in the head and their hands bound. The police spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. The father of one of the three said his son _ just 15 years old _ took part in the demo because he simply wanted a better life. "He was a peaceful person trying to participate in a peaceful demonstration," said Rajih al-Hadidi.

_ Four Iraqi journalists who'd been taking part in the "Day of Rage" said they were taken from a Baghdad restaurant following the demo. Iraqi Army soldiers pulled them into waiting Humvees and took them to an Iraqi military building, they said. One of them, radio journalist Hadi al-Mahdi, whose show regularly reports on corruption, said he was blindfolded, doused in water and subjected to electric shock while songs of Lebanese pop star Elissa played in the background. The journalists said the soldiers wanted them to admit to being Baathists, referring to the ruling party that ran Iraq under Saddam. All denied any connection to terrorists or Saddam's regime.

_ During the same protest, three employees of al-Sumaria, a Beirut-based Iraqi TV station, were surrounded by Iraqi security forces, made to lie on the ground and searched before being taken to a military facility. "The way they took us, it was as if we were terrorists or criminals, not journalists," said Sinan Adnan, one of the reporters. The three were eventually taken to the general in charge of eastern Baghdad, who said their detention was all a big mistake and let them go.

_ Over the weekend, gunmen wearing military uniforms vandalized a radio station in Kalar, in the autonomous Kurdish region. The station's director, Azad Othman, said the all-volunteer station had been aggressively covering anti-government demonstrations held in Sulaimaniyah for the last few weeks and had also covered corruption cases. Thousands of Kurds, angry at the control with which the two main political parties control the three provinces that make up the autonomous region, have been protesting near daily.

_ Iraqi federal police Sunday tried to shut down the Iraqi Communist Party offices in Baghdad. The party has been one of the organizers of the anti-government demonstrations happening around the country. Jassim al-Halfi, one of the group's members, said they were told to evacuate their building. He said the order came directly from al-Maliki who ordered all political parties in governmental buildings to evacuate. But he suspected the order had more to do with their support for the demonstrations.

_ Following a rally Monday to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the March 7 parliamentary elections, four activists were detained by Iraqi security forces on their way home, said Abayachi. One was released but the other three are still being held, she said.

_ Journalists covering a protest in front of the provincial government headquarters in Basra last Friday were beaten up.

Ziyad al-Ajili, head of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, said Iraqi journalists are under fierce attack. He said the organization has documented 24 cases of Iraqi journalists being detained since the Feb. 25 "Day of Rage." His own organization has also been raided.

"I think there are attempts to reduce the coverage of what happens in the demos and this is wrong," said al-Ajili.

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Associated Press writers Hamid Ahmed and Saad Abdul-Kadir in Baghdad and Sameer N. Yacoub in Amman, Jordan contributed to this report.