The United States said on Tuesday that it was ‘concerned’ about the treatment of journalists and activists during a protest this week in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. For years, public resentment of the Kurdish regional government has grown, sparking protests over unpaid state salaries and Turkish incursions into border areas. Human rights activists have previously stated that security forces have used excessive force in response to rallies, particularly as reporters have been increasingly attacked across the country.
‘We are concerned about reports of the use of tear gas and rubber-coated bullets to disperse protesters, as well as the detention of journalists, civil society activists, and members of parliament in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR),’ the American Embassy in Baghdad said in a statement. It comes after protests in the northern Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah on August 6.
‘Governments must safeguard constitutionally protected and universal human rights and freedoms, such as freedom of peaceful assembly and demonstration, freedom of expression, and the right to a fair trial with due process,’ according to the statement. It stated that journalists should be allowed to ‘do their jobs freely and without interference’. The embassy urged Kurdish officials to ‘review these actions and reaffirm the critical roles that a free press, peaceful assembly, and the rule of law play in democracy’.
According to a UN report published in May, activists are living in an ‘environment of fear and intimidation’ as a result of ongoing attacks on ‘protesters, persons seeking accountability for these attacks, and activists and critics espousing views critical of armed elements and affiliated political actors’.
According to the report, many activists have remained relocated within or outside of Iraq for fear of their safety. During months of anti-government protests in late 2019, more than 500 people were killed. These erupted during the tenure of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, affecting Baghdad and southern cities such as Basra. Over 7,000 unarmed protesters were injured.
In late July, supporters of the powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr broke into the heavily fortified Green Zone, occupied the parliament building, and staged an indefinite sit-in. They remain in the building, demanding new elections, the dissolution of Parliament, and constitutional amendments as political infighting stymies the difficult process of forming a government.