Democracy protesters sexually assaulted, beaten in Iraq

The takeaway for Iraq's leaders: the authoritarian tactics seem to be working.

By , Staff writer

Ah, the new Iraq. The freedom from Saddam Hussein, the flourishing young democracy the … beating and sexual molesting of peaceful protesters.

While the country may be better off without Hussein, the sorts of tactics he relied on are increasingly being used by the powers that replaced him. The semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq's north has been suppressing activists demanding free and elections and an end to the feudal politics of the region. It appears the central Iraqi government has been going the Kurds one better.

Human Rights Watch charges today that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to have ordered the beating, stabbing, and sexual assault of protesters earlier this month.

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"It’s pretty worrying," says Joe Stork, the head of the Middle East department at Human Rights Watch. "There are a few things that we hadn’t seen before, like the sexual molesting, that kind of thing. The pattern of using plain clothes people who to all appearances were working with the connivance of the security people, that’s certainly not new … we saw that when the so-called Arab spring protests started in Baghdad in February. This use of 'thugs' who may or may not be security is itself not unique to Iraq; in fact, it seems to be right out of the Egyptian playbook."

But while popular uprisings toppled Egypt's Hosni Mubarak in February and Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the news from Iraq is just the latest reminder that authoritarian methods remain surprisingly effective. While Muammar Qaddafi's grip on Libya is looking shaky (thanks to a massive NATO bombing campaign), Bashar al-Assad's brutal tactics in Syria appear to be helping him hold on (and he doesn't have to fear NATO).

In Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia helped a fellow Sunni monarchy put down a democracy movement led by Shiites, Saudi troops are going home. The Bahraini demonstrators' moment seems to have passed, with torture, long jail sentences, and other forms of intimidation taking a heavy toll. Today, police using truncheons and tear gas broke up a demonstration in Manama, the Associated Press reports. (Though as we reported from Cairo yesterday, those methods remain popular in post-Mubarak Egypt, too.)

June 10 marked the end of a 100-day period in which Mr. Maliki asked for Iraqi patience and promised he'd show results in the interim. The protesters converged on Baghdad's Tahrir Square to complain about government corruption and poor central government services. When they got there, plainclothes supporters of Maliki were waiting for them.

In a report today, Human Rights Watch says that it interviewed 25 demonstrators who were attacked that day, that security forces stood by and let it happen, and that two Ministry of Defense officials told the group privately that "a ministerial order authorized more than 150 plainclothes security forces from both the police and Army to infiltrate the June 10 protests. The sources indicated that the government was worried about increased numbers of demonstrators on that date because the 100-day period for improvements that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had promised in February would have ended."

Human Rights Watch researchers who attended the June 10 demonstration say thugs flashed Ministry of Interior IDs at them. Maliki is also the acting interior minister. At least eight women were sexually molested by the crowd. The military, meanwhile, was handing out bottles of frozen water to the thugs (a popular way to carry water during the baking Iraqi summer). The thugs used them to beat the protesters.

The good news for Maliki is that his efforts are working. The protests on the following Fridays were much smaller and more muted, with women in particular staying away.

While Iraq is often spoken of in US circles as a success story, a number of the men in power have risen thanks to the use of horrific tactics. Militias tied to some of Iraq's most powerful politicians routinely tortured their opponents to death (electric drills were a favorite tool) during the height of the civil war there, and there's been a steady drumbeat of allegations about routine torture by the Iraqi police and military from practically the moment they returned to work eight years ago.

Stork recounts how someone from Iraq's Human Rights Ministry led them to investigate a secret prison where torture was routinely used in early 2010. "There were people in the government who were very disturbed by this and at considerable risk to themselves went to the higher-ups. When nothing was done, they tipped us off," Stork says. "We were able to get in and interview the people there. Going through those testimonies was stomach-churning."

Coming from someone who's been doing human rights work in the Middle East for decades, that comment along says volumes.

The effect of the April 2010 report on the matter? "They closed it down, and simply moved people elsewhere," Stork says. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch found evidence of another secret prison and torture center. Stork says they were promised that it's since been shut, though he says he doubts that's true, given the track record. Human Rights Watch has also been getting less cooperation from the Human Rights Ministry since Maliki replaced the minister.

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