Iraq's central government and regional Kurdish leaders are beating and illegally detaining protesters to try to stop demonstrations calling for reforms, a leading human rights group said on Thursday.
A statement from the New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Iraqi authorities to release detained protesters or formally charge those suspected of breaking the law.
"Authorities in Baghdad and in Iraqi-Kurdistan are keeping their citizens from demonstrating peacefully," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
In one incident, HRW said security forces cited a May 28 security raid on the offices of a public interest organization in central Baghdad where 13 activists were handcuffed, blindfolded and hauled away. Four activists were released without charges later, and nine remain in custody.
The watchdog also cited witnesses in describing how men in civilian clothing detained four student protesters near a peaceful May 27 demonstration at Baghdad's Tahrir Square. The students have since been missing, the statement said, and their families have lobbied Iraqi authorities for help in finding them.
In the semiautonomous Kurdish region in Iraq's north, a protest organizer had his noise broken after eight armed and masked men grabbed him from the street, the statement said. It said the activist was stabbed, punched and beaten with rifle butts before he was left in a remote area.
"Iraq needs to make sure that security forces and pro-government gangs stop targeting protest organizers, activists, and journalists," Stork said.
While demonstrations across the Arab world have focused on regime change, most of the protests in Iraq have been pushing for improved services, jobs and an end to corruption.