Iraq: Threats, attacks and criminalisation of Karar al-Assaf (joint communication)

The following is based on a communication written by the Un Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and two to other UN experts, sent to the Government of Iraq on 1 November 2020. It remained confidential for 60 days, during which time the Iraqi Government was expected to reply. The Government of Iraq did not respond to this or any communications sent to it by the SR on Human Rights Defenders in 2021.

Replies, if received, will be published on the UN Special Procedures’ Database.

Topic: alleged physical attacks, threats and judicial harassment against Mr. Karar al-Assaf, in relation to his work as a journalist and human rights defender covering anti-government protests in Iraq.

BACKGROUND

Mr. Karar al-Assaf is a journalist and human rights defender, who worked in Najaf as a correspondent for the Dijlah TV and Yalla Iraq media outlets, with a focus on public corruption, mismanagement of public services and failures regarding public safety.

Concerns regarding the targeting of human rights defenders, civil society activists and journalists by State security forces and unidentified armed elements in the context of the multifaceted demonstrations concerning, among other issues, unemployment, corruption, the lack of provision of public services and the restriction of public freedoms, that have taken place in Iraq since October 2019, have been raised in several communications by Special Procedures mandate holders.

ALLEGATIONS

In October 2019, anti-government protests started in central and southern Iraq. Over the ensuing months, nearly 600 protestors were reportedly killed by security forces and militia groups. Mr. al-Assaf began covering the protests as a correspondent for the Dijlah TV and Yalla Iraq media outlets in Najaf. In December 2019, Mr. al-Assaf began receiving threats of bodily harm on social media from unknown individuals, allegedly based on his reporting of the protests and the violence against protestors. These threats continued for several months and several of Mr. al-Assaf’s colleagues were killed, prompting others to quit.

On 8 June 2020, Mr. al-Assaf was documenting the protests in Najaf as protestors began to withdraw from the square that they had been occupying. Mr. al-Assaf was approached by a Colonel of the Najaf police in the company of a number of high-ranking officers, and he was asked for identification. After presenting his press credentials and assuring the Colonel and the officers that his camera was turned off, the Colonel allegedly started to verbally abuse Mr. al-Assaf and demanded that he handed over his equipment, ensuring that it would be safe. Allegedly, upon handing over his equipment, another officer proceeded to destroy it.

The Colonel then allegedly escorted Mr. al-Assaf to an area where several dozen police officers and civilians were gathered. The Colonel identified Mr. al-Assaf as a correspondent for Dijlah TV and reportedly inveighed against him, to which the crowd joined in, cursing the human rights defender and accusing him of seeking the downfall of the governor of Najaf. The crowd then allegedly started to beat Mr. al-Assaf with batons and pipes, causing bruising to his arm and back. The Colonel later allegedly claimed that he had tried to protect Mr. al-Assaf.

Shortly afterwards, Mr. al-Assaf called Najafi officials to inform them of the incident, including the governor of Najaf, the chief of police, the chief of governmental communications, and the Najaf police press director, although none responded. Mr. al-Assaf submitted a complaint at the Najaf investigative court on 11 June 2020, after which he then submitted the same complaint to the Najaf appellate court on 13 June 2020, upon instruction of the judicial authorities. Mr. al-Assaf never received responses to either of the complaints, nor was he provided with copies of them.

On 27 July 2020, Mr. al-Assaf was reporting on the protests in Najaf when he was allegedly assaulted again by members of the security forces. In response, he submitted a complaint that day at the Najaf police headquarters. On 30 August 2020, during the Shiite holy month of Muharram, Dijlah Tarab, a separate affiliate of Dijlah TV, aired a musical concert. The performance coincided with the Ashura holiday, which sparked a wave of outrage, during which Dijlah Tarab was often confused with Dijlah TV. On 21 August 2020, the Russafa Investigative Court in Baghdad issued an arrest warrant for Dijlah TV’s owner. On the same day, arsonists set fire to Dijlah TV’s offices in Baghdad and attempted to do the same in Najaf. Mr. al-Assaf and several of his colleagues received numerous death threats, and his landlord also refused to continue renting to him.

On 1 September 2020, Mr. al-Assaf fled to the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, where he continued to receive threats online. On 17 September 2020, he received a call from a Najaf security official informing him of a confidential intelligence cable linking these threats to organized militia groups. Mr. al-Assaf was also contacted by a spokesperson for the militia group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, who alleged that if he wished to return to Iraq, he must publicly resign from Dijlah TV and swear loyalty to the Islamic Resistance groups. On 24 September 2020, Mr. al-Assaf left Iraq and took refuge in Lebanon. From there, he applied for refugee resettlement through the UNHCR.

On 27 September 2020, a security officer allegedly submitted a criminal complaint against Mr. al-Assaf, claiming that he had assaulted the security officer and broken his leg, although the human rights defender had already exited the country. The same day, the Najaf Investigative Court issued a notice requesting Mr. al-Assaf’s presence within three days, which he was unable to fulfil. The Court issued a second identical notice on 30 March 2021, which Mr. al-Assaf did not fulfil, due to his residence outside of the country and the nature of the claims. On 12 April 2021, the Court issued an arrest warrant for Mr. al-Assaf.

While in exile, Mr. al-Assaf has continued reporting on cases of corruption and human rights violations in Iraq, which has allegedly provoked further threats against him.

CONCERNS

In the communication we expressed concern at the physical attacks, threats and judicial harassment against human rights defender and journalist Mr. al-Assaf, which appear to be directly linked to the legitimate exercise of his right to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as of peaceful assembly and of association, provided by articles 19, 21 and 22 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), acceded by Iraq on 25 January 1971.

Furthermore, we emphasized that the work carried out by journalists and media outlets covering anti-government protests in Iraq is legitimate and important, and is protected by the right to freedom of assembly, provided for under articles 19 and 21 of the ICCPR. The reported threats which Mr. al-Assaf continues to receive are cause for particular concern, as they represent a concerted effort to stifle his criticism of the Government and preclude him from exercising his right to freedom of expression.

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