“I counted the blows that were ravaging my body, but I stopped when he hit my chest with the bottom of the gun. I felt like everything froze up there, even air… I flipped over with the chair I was tied to during the whole period of my abduction.
“But apparently that was not enough for him. He stood in all his weight on my chest. His shoe made my face bleed,” says “Abductee 1,” a young activist and protester, remembering the torture he underwent during his abduction period from 27-31 October, 2019, while staring at a dark corner in the rectangular hall where we met.
Trying to conceal his pain, he added: “I would have never believed such torture would take place in Iraq against those of us who only wanted to defy corruption.”
During his five-day long nightmare in an undisclosed location, he did not know who his torturers were, and his fate lay uncertain before him. He says he did not meet any other abductees there. But his torturers mentioned their intention of hunting down his fellow protesters.
According to many sources approached by our investigative team, there are dozens of abductees, a fact confirmed by Fadel Al- Gharawi, a member of the High Commission of Human Rights.Al Gharawi said “the commission documented 79 abductions or enforced disappearances of activists and protesters, including four women, since early October 2019 when protests first erupted and till the second week of February, only 22 thereof were released”.
But activists from the popular movement say numbers are higher. There are names that were not documented by the Commission, as abductees’ families prefer to keep quiet, and use whatever strings they can pull to release them, and avoid worse consequences.
Abductees’ ages, beliefs and orientations vary, so do the ways they were lured into abduction, but they all have in common “the crime of protesting the rulers”, an accusation that was translated during interrogation and torture into “receiving money from abroad, collaboration with hostile parties, sabotaging public properties.”
At 6 pm on the 27th of October, Abductee 1 was in Tahrir Square, the hub of protests in Baghdad, when protesters were attacked by tear gas. A canister hit his right shoulder and he retreated to Saadoun street to get medical treatment and rest.
“I was lucky the canister was cold and only caused a bruise. I took a rest, then returned to the square to help medics near Okaila school, beside Jumhouria Bridge. “For almost an hour, I carried people who were suffocating to the ambulance, located 200 meters from the spot, but soon, I myself was suffocating, coughing and trying to keep myself from fainting, then I stumbled. “Last thing I remember was a tuk-tuk motorcycle that arrived to take me,” he says while trying to get off the chair he was stuck in during our whole meeting.
Abductee 1 had no idea that he was being abducted: “I woke up on an ambulance floor. There were two strangers. One of them hit me and yanked my arm while the other injected a liquid in my veins, so I lost consciousness again.”
Repression and Abduction Fuel More Protests
Abduction was not common in the early days of protests. Death was near every second in Tahrir and the protest hubs of other governorates in the form of lethal tear gas canisters excessively used, and the type of which the government did not confirm, neither did it indicate their source and those who used them.
At that time, and even before, in October, snipers were continuously shooting bullets, picking their victims at random. According to Ali Al-Baiaty, a member of HCHR, the commission has documented 556 killings over four months, including 158 killed in early October 2019, and 399 between late October and February 2020. 24,000 were injured.
In addition to the varied killing methods, abduction was used to terrorize protesters in Baghdad and the south.
That violence only fueled more protests. The number of protesters increased and demonstrations swelled that demanded reform, a stop to corruption and public services improvement. Demands also included the departure of the ruling class and a regime change. Such a demonstration was ongoing on the evening of February 26, 2019 when an armed group broke into the Sanak Garage and Khalany square and shot dead 25 protesters in what was later known as the “Sanak Slaughter” which led the next morning to massive surge of protesters onto the square.
Political analyst Kazem Al-Meqdadi believes that protests demanding change threaten the privileges of the corrupt political parties.
“They hunt, abduct and kill people, militia style. The ongoing disappearance of activist Galal Al Shahmany since 2016 serves as a perfect example” Al-Meqdadi said.
Al Shahmany and two other prominent activists, Waey Al-Mansoury in 2015 and Farag Al-Badry in 2018, have disappeared. No party claimed responsibility for their abduction. The three activists were known for leading intermittent protests for years. Their families assured us that “abducting them was a revenge for nothing else than their protesting activities. “Endlessly waiting is the hardest thing. We don’t even have a grave to go to and weep” said a brother of one of the victims.
In recent years, no data was released on the numbers of abductees. Investigations usually end with pointless results, even in the case of released abductees. Disappearances, the silencing of the released and the pointless investigations, result in the final details of the lives of the disappeared, whether they were tortured or assassinated promptly, remaining unknown.
Based on statements documented by the team, some survivors talked about being tortured both physically and psychologically, in unfamiliar ways.
“What terrified me the most was not the beating, but that liquid the torturers injected in my veins and caused me each time to lose consciousness,” said Abductee 1 “I lost track of time. Being blindfolded all the time added to my suffering”.
Victims or Mere Numbers?
After many interviews with officials at“Al-Namaa Center for Human Rights”, we obtained a detailed report on killings and kidnappings. Prepared by the Center, the report confirmed the information we had been gathering from various sources.
According to a report prepared between 1 October-31 December of 2019, the monitoring team at the Center recorded 64 abductions and assassinations of human rights activists.
According to the report, many of the kidnapped were tortured into false confessions to be later charged with spying for foreign states.
After we contacted Abductee no. 2 (23 years), who was kidnapped for seven days, he first agreed to meet us at a cafe in Baghdad’s Karrada district. But on the day of the meeting, he called to change the meeting point out of caution.
During the three-hour meeting, Abductee 2 kept looking around whenever he heard a voice. His eyes were riveted to the door: “I can hardly breathe, they broke my nose on the first day.”
Just like Abductee 1, he could not identify his kidnappers or even know he was being abducted in the first place. He spoke in whispers; “They never removed the blindfold. I was handcuffed, my legs were tied. It was terrifying. For seven days, they continuously beat me and insulted me.”
With every question, he paused for a moment before answering, and he kept emphasizing that he did not want his name to be mentioned for fear of being pursued by the kidnappers.
Asked about the hardest day of the abduction, he said: “The second day was the worst of all. They accused me of working for foreign embassies, and when I denied the accusation, they covered my face with a cloth and poured water on me. They kept doing this for more than two hours, hitting different areas of my body with iron tools that I could not distinguish. At the end of the interrogation, Al-Hajji, who was the leader, asked them to cut my fingers off and I heard the sound of the saw being turned on. They pulled my hand toward it, I felt it close to my fingers.”
According to the testimonies of seven of the kidnapped, the varied methods of torture had one similarity: they were so painful they left marks on both their bodies and souls.The kidnappers accused them of “spying, receiving money from embassies to carry out the latter’s agendas, and inciting others to demonstrate.”
Via WhatsApp, we contacted kidnap victim no. 3 (26 years old) who is from Dhi Qar Governorate, 387 km south of Baghdad, and asked him about the accusations that were leveled at him.
He replied, laughing: “An embassy agent, an atheist and a member of the ‘Joker Gang’ ”. He denied those accusations. However, they kept repeating them for the six days they detained him, during which he was beaten and tortured in many ways: “They didn’t leave a single part of my body unscathed. They hit me with rifle butts and shoes. And when they failed to force me to say what they wanted to hear, they connected an electrical wire to my penis.”
After what he was subjected to during his kidnapping, Abductee 3 continues to see a therapist to deal with physical and psychological traumas. “Because of beatings and electric shocks in my thighs and legs, my whole life has changed. It’s hard for me to stand more than a few minutes.” He said.
We obtained a copy of his medical report. His name and personal information have been hidden, per his request. The doctor’s diagnosis shows the young man’s back is still carrying bruises and there are scars on his thighs and forearms.
Torture: ‘Saddam’ style
According to people who were kidnapped, the torture methods “recall the practices of security forces during the rule of Saddam Hussein.” This is exactly what victim no. 4 (26 years) said. He was kidnapped in a four-wheel drive from his neighborhood in Baghdad, on his way home from Tahrir Square in mid-December 2019.
He spent 10 days in an undisclosed detention place, where he was tortured daily. “Until now, I still hear the sound of that thing blowing through the air,” he said. ” I don’t know what it was, an iron pipe I think, or a wooden stick. I can’t forget it, its pain is still harrowing through my back”.
“The second blow hit my left leg,” he added. “Although the pain is gone, I still walk with difficulty. It wasn’t only beating, but also electrocution for hours.”
Abductee 4 refused to let us take photos of torture marks. He says there’s a traumatic barrier between him and the camera.”
Eight days after he was kidnapped, “Someone entered the room I was in, blindfolded me and tied me up. He forced me to change my stained clothes. When he uncovered my eyes, I saw masked men around me. They told me to read a paper in front of the camera. His accent seemed strange, maybe levantine. The paper contained confessions that made no sense to me.
“They threatened to harm my father, mother and brothers,” he added, “even my friends, they listed their names. I couldn’t resist.”
Abductee 4 was not the only one to be forced to read a confession paper in front of the camera or videotaped. Abductee 3 suspects his abductors may have recorded a video of him being tortured in order to blackmail him in the future. Abductee 2 thinks they recorded all the interrogation and torture sessions on camera.
Abductee 1 has a different opinion. “I don’t think they did,” he said, “because I was kidnapped early on, then it wasn’t very common to videotape. Later, I heard they videotaped torture and rape.”
Abductee 2, who was released 7 days after he was kidnapped, at a place far from his home in Baghdad, said his kidnappers were security officers. He concluded that from the words they used. Although he heard the word ‘haji’ while he was interrogated two days after he was abducted, “they mostly used the word ‘sir’ during the period I was abducted.”
Hisham Al Hashimy, a political analyst and an expert in armed groups, suspects that security officials conspire with the armed groups that acted against protestors, pointing to the statement of former prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi in which he demanded that abductors release their victims: “Mr. Abdul-Mahdi knew the parties responsible for this crime, but he was not willing to make a decision to punish them according to the terrorism law, because these groups are backed by political parties that have control over the parliament and the government”.
Abdul-Mahdi had called for “releasing the captives” in a statement on November 14, 2019, naming doctor Yasser Abdul-Jabbar, the dean of the High Institute of Security and Administrative Development, who was kidnapped two days earlier. A video recording from a security camera showed the moment he was kidnapped on one of the streets of the capital, by unknown armed men, in a four-wheel drive.
In this video, you can see the details of the kidnapping of Yasser Abdul-Jabbar, as recorded by a surveillance camera.
Al-Gharawy, the representative of the HCHR, told our reporters, that “the Commission registered 2800 arrests by different security forces.”
In the surroundings of Tahrir Square, there are several types of security officers, including those in civilian clothes.
Abductee 2 thinks he was being monitored within the square before being kidnapped. He said, “During the torture and interrogation sessions, they showed me photos of myself at the demonstrations. One photo was of me sitting with my friends in a tent.”
On October 4, federal police patrol arrested 5 journalists near the Firdaws square, leading to Tahrir, without an arrest warrant. News anchor at “Huna Baghdad” channel, Ahmad Abbas, said, “As soon as he knew we were journalists, the officer yelled at us, and ordered us to get into their car. When we asked why, he said we were instigating people against the regime. We were treated very badly, detained for three hours, then released after a mediation.” Journalists and press crews have had their share of kidnappings since the start of the demonstrations.
“We registered more than 76 assaults and kidnappings of journalists from the beginning of October 2019, until February 20, 2020,” said al-Gharawy.
International Organizations are Warning
On December 2, 2019, Human Rights Watch said it was holding the Iraqi authorities responsible for investigating the kidnappings, and demanded the release of detainees against whom no clear charges were pressed. Despite all the appeals of the local and international human rights organizations, kidnappings are still taking place.
The federal government and the security officials do not comment on the accusations of the international reports. Hisham al-Hashimy says “the authorities are fully capable of enforcing the law, but there is a lack of political will to do so. In the light of partisan and sectarian conspiracies between those groups and the political and security leaders, they choose to remain silent vis-a-vis these reports”.
Sometimes kidnappings and torture happen in public, in front of the demonstrators and the passersby. People shared photos and videos on social media that show atrocities that happened. There is also footage that could not be published to protect those involved in the videos.
During one of the protest waves which extended from Tahrir Square eastward to Muhammad Qassim road, and Wathb square to the north, on January 20, our team witnessed trails of Tuk-Tuks flocking in to remove the injured and the suffocating to medical facilities around the square. Amid their cries and moans, our team met with Abductee 5, after he was transferred to the medical facility due to body injuries.
He used to come to the square everyday. He never expected that he would be arrested by riot police deployed on Muhammad al-Qassim highway, without a warrant, or a crime. He was treated in a terrible way, as his friend who was accompanying him said, especially that he was not on the Muhammad al-Qassim road, but on the sidewalk near the Kilany gas station.
It’s worth noting that instructions were issued to security services to prevent any attempts to block roads and bridges, and treat those who do as criminals who disrupt public order and damage public property.
Abductee 5 agreed to talk and asked to take photos of the scars all over his body. We waited until he actually came out of a semi coma due to the severity of the beatings he was subjected to. After receiving first aid and regaining some calm, he said: “Please, publish these photos and let the whole world see them.”
Who tortured you this way? Abductee 5 answered: “I was close to the gas station in Al-Kilani Square near Mohammed al-Qasim Highway, a joint force of riot police and ‘SWAT’ arrested me. They were masked.”
“They hit me all over my body with sticks and tasers. They interrogated me for three hours, ripped off my clothes and left me naked in one of the branches in Al-Bataween region close to Tahrir, then I ended up here.”
Occasionally, social media users in Iraq share images and videos of victims after they have been released that show marks of torture on their bodies.
In mid-November 2019, Iraq failed to renew its membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council, after some countries abstained from voting for it, and the reason, according to Al-Namaa Center for Human Rights, was the “deteriorating human rights situation in the country.”
On November 13 of the same year, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert―a Special Representative of the Secretary General for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq―delivered a speech before the Iraqi parliament, in which she demanded the government and the Council of Representatives to move to meet the protesters’ demands and stop kidnapping, killing and threatening activists and protesters.
In a second briefing on March 3, 2020, Hennis-Plasschaert provided updates on anti-corruption demonstrations and demands for reforms. She touched on some of the basic issues like killing, kidnapping, violence, intimidation and threats. She noted that these are violations of human rights and emphasized the country’s responsibility for the safety and security of its citizens.
Turning to the existence of some “armed entities” with unclear affiliations: “We’re witnessing some groups and individuals taking advantage of the peaceful demonstrations and security forces to cover them, which complicates the problem, misleading the public and harming the state’s interests which in turn leaves the political scene blurry.” she said.
Plasschaert’s briefing provoked some of Iraq’s political entities and pushed them to condemn and denounce it, to the extent that some parliamentary groups demanded her replacement, calling her report “unfair and selective.” The different forms and sources of pressure did not change the reality of kidnapping or even make it better. The identity of those responsible for carrying out such operations was not revealed. And the released victims still suffer serious physical and psychological effects, while the fate of others remains unknown.
Fear in Broad Daylight
Aside from physical effects, abductions and torture caused those released victims and detainees psychological wounds that will not heal easily.
While we were talking, a normal sound made Abductee 2 suddenly jump, his face turned white and he lost control over his hands and body. Throughout the meeting, he was struggling to open up which made us decide to move to a quieter and more private place. “They’re following me, they’re everywhere and I’m scared of being kidnapped again.”
One of the investigation team members was in Kurdistan and tried to reach out to Abductee 6 who was staying in a local hospital where he sought help to get over the psychological effects he suffered during his abduction. He adamantly refused to conduct the interview. He sent us a voice message via his friends: “Tell them that the kidnappers treated me well, they offered me flowers and fed me and lodged me in the best hotel. If I say otherwise, they’ll seek revenge and hurt my family. I cannot rule out the possibility that they will attack my mother and my children.”
Abductee 6 was scared to the extent of doubting and accusing the investigation team of being complicit with the kidnappers to test how far his silence can last. “Sending me someone disguised as a journalist or a member of a humanitarian organization wouldn’t surprise me at all,” he said.
Abductors to activists: shut up forever!
Abductors lay many conditions to release activists, including forcing them to keep quiet on social media about abduction methods or the identity of the kidnappers, and avoid participating in protests.
The investigative team found that some abducted activists who were released had already blocked and eliminated their social pages, while others quit all activities in general.
Also, many known writers and bloggers have stopped writing, some have blocked their social media pages after being threatened with abduction and punishment, which is what Z.Y. did.
According to abductees’ statements to our team, kidnappers opened their phones and checked their messages, chats and videos.
During their abduction, the victims’ Facebook accounts appeared to be active. Friends of Maytham Al-Helo, an activist and writer, were astonished to see his account active while he disappeared for 20 days before being released on 20th November.
Activists and abductees accuse the security forces and the Popular Mobilisation militia of abductions that targeted protesters and human right defenders. Two abductees and one protester who survived an attempt to kidnap him, in a meeting with our investigative team, mentioned names of “famous” armed factions they believed were behind abductions.
“Amnesty International” released a report at the end of 2019 accusing Iraqi security forces and the Popular Mobilization militia of using excessive violence against protesters, in addition to having them arrested, forcibly disappeared, tortured and inflicting other forms of terror on them.
The report indicated that some of the said violations were perpetrated by security and intelligence services.
“Most abductees withheld the details of their abduction method and their kidnappers’ identity. But authorities gather sufficient information to be disclosed later after conducting investigations,” says General Khaled Al-Muhanna, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. “Many protests-related abductions are conducted on political grounds, some cases were exaggerated, but others were purely criminal. Abduction incidents used to be and are still common. Investigative departments in the ministry have adequate experience to handle such cases. Once investigations are completed, criminals shall be punished, regardless of their affiliation”.
When will investigation results be announced? “Eventually, investigations will be referred to the competent Judicial Courts of Iraq. The ministry is competent on the technical side of investigations… as for timing, it also depends on court decisions” answered Al-Muhanna.
In an attempt to receive abduction investigation results reviewed by courts, we sent out a request, through the information bureau, to Judge Abdul-Sattar Al-Bayrkadar, the Supreme Judicial Council spokesman. Two days later, the information bureau, on behalf of the Judicial Council, rejected our request.
The “Unknown” Third Party
In an interview with France Press on 14th November 2019, when protests were at their peak, Nagah Al-Shummary, the Iraqi Minister of Defense, accused what he named “third parties”- which he did not identify- of killing and abducting protesters. Since then, the term “third party ” has become common. It was even used to refer to political parties that backed the protests.
Commanders and officials of the Popular Mobilization militia used the term to brand protesters as “intruders”. In an interview with Al-Aahd Channel, leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, a faction of Popular Mobilization, claimed that “the third party is American- Israeli,” accusing both countries of killing protesters.
Activists and protesters use the term “third party” when referring to those responsible for threatening and abducting protesters. Two abductees who spoke to the investigative team defined the “third party” as “the armed factions of the Popular Mobilization.
For his part, PM commander, Muhammad Al-Basry, defended those factions, denying their responsibility for abductions. “These accusations reveal the intention to destroy al-Hashd Al-Shaabi during protests, for they couldn’t do that when we were fighting ISIS, as we had the upper hand,” Al-Basry said.
The commander says that “there are false claims of kidnapping operations on part of those who are using the demonstrations for their own agendas, or to apply for asylum abroad.”
“Activist Mary Muhammad, for example, went out to support tuk-tuk drivers. A few days after her abduction, it transpired that she had applied for asylum in Germany. These scenarios discredit the security forces, unfortunately.”
Spokesman of the Ministry of Interior, Khaled al-Mohana, agrees with al-Basri, and believes that most abduction operations are fake. Only some are real, but most are fabricated and have the intention to apply for asylum. He confirms that the ministry is closely following those cases: “Usually kidnapping operations are recorded whenever someone is reported missing. That’s when the police investigation starts. We do not discriminate between citizens, they are all equal.”
Abductee. 1 regrets that his family did not report his abduction for fear of persecution.
The family of Abductee 4 were bold enough to report their son missing, but the moment he was released, they dropped the charges, as this was “one of the conditions for his liberation”, according to him.
Kidnapping Without Suspension
After his release, victim no. 2 tried to go back to Tahrir Square but as soon as he arrived, he received a message from an anonymous account reminding him of what happened to him during the period he was abducted, and advising him to leave immediately. “I started to doubt everyone,” he said, describing the moment he read the message.
Our team tried to contact three victims who were abducted twice, but they were suspicious and refused to give statements about the circumstances of their abduction. According to the information we received, those who were kidnapped were repeatedly and more severely tortured the second time around, and forced to give guarantees not to return to the protests. One of them is an activist and a paramedic, Alaa Hussein’s brother Ibrahim, who was abducted for the second time on February 15, 2020. The abductors sent Alaa photos of her brother smeared with blood.
Ibrahim was kidnapped for five days, and was released on February 20, 2020, and our team knew through people who are close to him that the first time, the abductors ordered him not to ever return to Tahrir square, and the second time they warned him again, after he had returned the square between the two abductions.
Forced disappearance, harassing and threatening human rights activists have not stopped, even after the spread of coronavirus led to a decline in protests: On March 9, 2020, journalist Tawfik al-Tamimi, who works at al-Sabah semi-official newspaper belonging to Iraqi Media Network, was abducted, and his fate remains unknown until the editing of this report.
Al-Tamimi was kidnapped two days after he shared a post on Facebook inquiring about one of his colleagues in Iraqi Media Network, writer and publisher Mazen Lateef, who was also abducted on the 1st day of February 2020. Despite what they went through, the survivors we interviewed insisted on staying in Iraq.
Abductee. 1 said, “My life is of no value here, but I’m not leaving my country. I’m no longer afraid of anything.”
A.T., an Iraqi young man known for his activism in Tahrir square and who got his nose broken during a botched abduction operation, declared that he wanted to stay in Iraq. “Two days after the kidnapping attempt,” he said, “I returned to Tahrir. I passed by the place where they tried to kidnap me near the square, and I will continue to come here and demand my rights, despite the threats I receive and all the troubles that I’ve been through”.
Victims and those who were threatened or subjected to kidnapping attempts are anonymized for safety reasons. This report was prepared with the support of the Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism (NIRIJ).