Ahmed Hasan – Translated by Walaa Rayya
Early in the morning of May 9, in front of his house in Al-Haddad neighborhood near the two sacred shrines in the fortified city of Karbala, before Ehab Al-Wazni parked his car, two people were waiting for him on a bicycle parked beside the road. One of them approached lightly from the car window and shot. Then they quickly disappeared into the dark, a scene that Iraqis have become accustomed to since the start of the October 2019 protests.
The assassinated protest coordinator in Karbala joined a long list of fellow protesters who were killed in the same way in the most secure city in the country, and in front of surveillance cameras spread everywhere, documenting every crime without leading to arrest the killers. Their files are transferred after a while to the archive and the crime is recorded against unknown perpetrators.
Hours later, there was a second assassination attempt, this time targeting journalist Ahmed Hassan in the nearby Diwaniyah governorate. One of the bullets hit him in his head and the other one in his shoulder, Hassan was in serious condition fighting death in the intensive-care unit.
90 attempts, 30 dead
Since the beginning of October 2019, parties that document the victims of October protests, have recorded about 90 assassination attempts, which claimed more than 30 prominent activists and journalists, besides those who were killed during confrontations between demonstrators, security forces, and militias in the protest arenas.
In early February 2020, The IHCHR member, Ali Al-Bayati announced the commission had registered 49 assassination attempts in which 22 people were killed, 13 injured, and 14 failed attempts. “89 assassination attempts have taken place since the start of the demonstrations in all governorates of Iraq, targeting activists, media professionals, and bloggers,” said Fadel Al-Gharawi, a member of the Human Rights Commission.
These numbers reveal that the assassinations are ongoing at the same pace, even after the formation of the new government headed by Mustafa Al-Kazemi in May 2020, so the “death squad” continued their operations without hesitation because they remained free-hand and anonymous, according to investigations.
“They will kill us one by one. They control the state organs and have even become the rulers in it… They will kill us as long as the government watches and covers up the killers…We have two options: either we escape our cities, our lives, and our families, or we have to confront death. Almost all crime clues are revealed within hours and those involved are arrested, while all assassinations’ investigations take months and then tied up against unknown persons. The truth is they are unable to arrest those involved, whom they know in most cases, and they are unable to reveal their affiliation. “Said a prominent activist in Dhi Qar, who refused to reveal his name fearing prosecution.
Al-Wazni knew his own killers
A while before his murder and amidst a group of protesters, Ahab al -Wazni revealed receiving death threats and addressed the Karbala police chief: “I sent you their names… I hold you fully responsible… I am A man is under threat today.”Al Wazni had already survived an assassination attempt at the end of 2019 during which his friend Fahm Al-Ta’i was killed.
“All protesters are threatened. Reveal to us the identities of those behind their murder. You are responsible for our protection. The cameras are there, so reveal the identity of those who burned the protesters’ tents. Hold them accountable instead of holding the protesters accountable and arresting them. If you cannot, stand down and leave room for competencies capable of protecting the security of Karbala and its people. ” Said Al-Wazni.
A week after Al-Wazni murder, the security services confirmed “their seriousness in investigating the incident and announcing the results as soon as they were complete.” The activists heard these same words after each operation and they understand the case will end up in a vacuum. Al-Wazni and Al-Ta’i families pointed the finger at the governor of Karbala and the police chief.
In a joint statement, the two families explained that the accusation was due to the expiry of the period they gave the officials to uncover the gang, but they didn’t receive any response indicating the officials’ seriousness in dealing with the case. “This behavior indicates that the government authorities (the governor and the police chief) are either involved in this heinous crime, or they are trying to cover up the perpetrators.”
I’m Iraqi. Who killed me?
For almost 8 months, tens of thousands of protesters in public squares in Baghdad and the southern governorates have been subjected to all forms of repression from live shootings, rubber bullets, tear gas, and white weapons, as well as torture and assassination. No one was held accountable waiting for the investigations to be completed.
A year and a half had passed, and the series of committees that were set up did not identify the killer, even though the government headed by Mustafa Al-Kazemi, which was formed as a result of protests following the overthrow of the government of Adel Abdul-Mahdi, confessed to the deaths of 560 demonstrators and security agents, including dozens of activists who had been assassinated by them.
“The secrecy over the results of the investigations” pushed activists to launch a campaign entitled “I am an Iraqi who killed me” to force the government to announce the results of its investigations, reveal the names and the parties involved, and stop publishing data threatening murderers with prosecution without any real capacity for action.
The campaign included the publication of dozens of “posters” and banners bearing the image of Al-Wazani and his companions, and it was spread in the streets and squares of Baghdad and the cities of the south, as well as Diyala.
Karbala activists sent a protest letter to Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kazemi, via his office phone number. They asked him to implement his promises to reveal the killers of activists and journalists, held accountable the governor of Karbala in the capacity as the head of the Supreme Security Committee, and the removal of the Commissioner of Karbala police and refer him to the courts.
On Tuesday, May 25 thousands of people participated in the protest, which included protesters from southern cities like Nasiriyah and Karbala. They raised pictures of assassinated activists, especially Ehab Al-Wazani. During the protests in Tahrir Square, two demonstrators died at the hospital an hour after being shot in the neck.”
According to the High Commission for Human Rights, two demonstrators have been killed, and 20 have been wounded, 130 security forces have been injured. The commission said that a large number of protesters were arrested, and most of them were released, except for 11 who are still detained.
Ali Al-Fariji, a journalist and activist from the Diwaniyah province who participated in the Tahrir demonstrations, says, “Maybe the escalation will come, so it is impossible to remain silent while the government watches the shedding of our blood. In the Al-Hashemi case, the government repeatedly talked about clues and about identifying the perpetrators. But in the end, they’ve fled Iraq. The government recognized them, but until today it has not announced their names and the party they belong to.”
A source close to the government says that the security authorities “are doing their duty and prosecuting those involved, but they are facing great challenges,” without going into their nature. He recalled the arrests of the “death squad” in Basra last February, and the attempt to arrest wanted important people who belong to armed factions within the Popular Mobilization On May 12, 2021, in reference to Sabah Al-Wafi, an official in the “Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq” group, whom a force from the Counter-Terrorism Service tried to arrest.
But that operation failed and wanted people disappeared, and some details of the attempt turned into a scandal. In a clear revolt against the General Command and military orders, gunmen attacked the headquarters of AL Soukour Intelligence Cell in the Palace compound simply because they suspected that the force that attempted to carry out the arrest was affiliated with the cell. Al-Kazemi was subsequently forced to remove the Chief of Operations, Major General Akram Saddam.
The media then published a statement issued to the Commander of Operations, stating that the shooting inside the Presidential Palace followed the movement of a special security force from Baghdad to arrest a wanted person.
However, they did not find him at home and left, but the faction of the wanted man has received information that the raiding force was from the Al Soukour cell of the Palace compound, The cell was shot, although Al Sukur did not know about the raid.
Last February, the security services failed to enter the headquarters of the Popular Mobilization in the presidential palace compound to arrest a high-profile “death squad” wanted who was smuggled later.
Leaked death lists
Between October 2019 and January 2020, more than 10 Iraqi governorates, in addition to Baghdad, witnessed massive demonstrations, in which different segments of society participated, during which hundreds of activists were kidnapped, tortured, and arrested.
During four months of protests, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) documented around 50 assassination attempts, before the momentum of the demonstrations was reduced by the proliferation of the “Corona” virus. The killing machine kept working and stalking activists, and the victims’ number climbed in the subsequent months.
Jaafar Al-Khasib (pseudonym), a prominent activist in Basra and one of the victims was forced to escape the city in October 2020 heading to Sulaymaniyah Governorate in the Kurdistan Region, and then to Turkey.
“In mid-September, after I got out of the house, three gunmen driving a white pickup Toyota followed me, they shot me but didn’t hit me, and I managed to escape,” said Al-Khasib.
Al-Khasib, who was contacted via the WhatsApp application, required that no descriptions of his identity be given, because this may pose a threat to the life of his family living in Iraq even after he escaped the country. “They do everything. The families of numerous fleeing activists are constantly threatened, sometimes with bursts of bullets or acoustics.” He says.
Al-Amarah and Nasiriyah: The Activists Cemetery
On the evening of 10 March 2020, prominent activist Abdel Kudos Kassem and his lawyer friend Karar Adel, was assassinated in the abandoned industrial area in Amara city, in the southern Iraqi province of Mysan, when he was returning home in the company of his friend, who had been his guest, while a third colleague survived after they’re being shot.
At about 9 pm, masked gunmen stopped him and his friend, and they asked them to sit on the floor, and then they shot them.
A few days earlier, Karrar published a quote saying that “there are those who want to cut off the head of everyone who awakens people from their slumber throughout history.”
Activist Saeb Hamid, a friend of Abdel Kudos, could have met the same fate if he had not escaped with his family from the city, which has seen major protests against controlling parties. He took refuge in Turkey at the end of 2019 following a failed assassination attempt. His fellow activist Majid al – Zubaydi also fled after gunmen attacked his car. But Abdul Kudos insisted on staying and he paid for it with his life.
“Hamid” cannot accurately determine who targeted them, but says, “It’s the death squad formed by the factions dominating the city, no one else can do all these crimes without fearing prosecution.”
As in Al-Amarah, assassinations were recurrent in Nasiriyah and Dhi Qar Governorate. Activist Ali Mehdi Oujail, who was subjected to two assassination attempts in 2020, says: “an armed political group affected by the demonstrations sought to take advantage of the disagreement between the demonstrators and “Saraya Salam” (the Sadrist military wing).
It carried out a series of assassinations to sow discord among protesters and push them to accuse the Sadrists who attacked and burned tents in the sit-in square, following Sadr’s call to end the sit-ins and restore normal life to the city.
“Those involved in the assassinations believe that these activists have popularity and influence, and they may pose a danger and think of excluding them by all means, from killing, kidnapping, and disappearance to planting explosives in front of their families’ homes”. Explains Oujaili
The clues that lead to nothing
On 15 December 2019, an improvised explosive device assassinated the prominent activist in Diwaniyah Governorate, Thaer Al-Tayeb. Thousands of protesters chanting the slogan “Thaer Where are you the square needs you today” attended his funeral.
“After the incident, when Thaer was at the hospital before he died, the investigating officer, General Ibrahim Al-Asadi, confirmed to us that they had reached the first leads, and three days later they told us that they were taking action after accessing important information and diagnosing those involved through cameras.” Said Malek Al-Tayeb, Thaer’s brother.
“Then Dewaniyah Police Commander General Haidar Menkhi showed up at the downtown clock square. He said that the command had reached the leads and that in a week they will arrest and execute criminals in the square.”
“After a year of talking about clues, nothing happened, we knocked on everyone’s doors, even Interior Minister Osman Ghanmi, without result, until we reached Al-Kazemi, who promised to arrest the killers within three months, but he broke his promise,” says Al-Tayeb, with no hope of government bodies taking any serious steps. “Even the number we were communicating with him and one of his advisers no longer responded to us.”
Al-Tayeb no longer asks the government to arrest the murderers, but only to reveal their identities, so that they can be held accountable in clan court as long as the government fails to do so.
Journalists in the line of fire
Not only activists are being assassinated. “Death squad” are pursuing journalists who write about militia violations.
During the first phase of the Tishreen protests, between October and December 2019, three journalists were assassinated. Amjad Al-Dahamat was killed on November 7 near his home in Maysan Governorate, southern Iraq. The independent photographer Hisham Faris Al-Adhami who was the first victim was shot dead by an irregular militia on October 4, while he was covering a demonstration in Abdul Qadir al-Kilani Square in Baghdad. On December 6, the photographer Ahmed Muhanna was shot in the back by an unknown source bullet, while he was covering the demonstrations in al-Khilani Square in Baghdad and his death sparked a wave of outrage on social media platforms.
The following year, as demonstrations and sit-ins go on for months, several journalists were assassinated, most notably Ahmed Abdul Samad, a correspondent of Basra’s satellite channel “Dajla”, his fellow photographer Safaa Ghali (10 January 2020), and strategic researcher Hisham Al-Hashimi (6 July 2020).
During this period of popular protests, more than 600 violations were documented: 5 assassinations and 22 injuries as a result of covering the demonstrations, 85 threats of death and physical liquidation, in addition to the closure of 30 media outlets, most of which came in implementation of orders from the Governmental Media and Communications Authority. In addition, 27 armed attacks against journalists and media organizations were documented, carried out by armed men whom the authorities considered “unidentified,” despite their exposed faces and their explicit declaration of their affiliation, without any deterrence or accountability from the responsible authorities.
Like the rest of those killed in the protests, it has not been determined who was responsible, and even in the case of journalist Ahmed Abdul Samad, the Government has announced the arrest of members of the network involved in the assassination (death squad).
The responsible party was not revealed, and no files were opened to indict dozens of names who instigated on their social media pages the murder of many journalists and activists for treason and receiving money.
In the murder of Abdul Samad and his colleague, a prominent source in one of the parties in force in Basra confirmed to the investigative clerk that “a government report identifying the group that carried out the assassination was linked to The Popular Mobilization Forces and the intelligence service information was delivered to local and international actors.”
Since 2003, according to the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate’s statistics, more than 370 journalists have been assassinated, and so far no party has been held accountable or the killer of any journalist has been arrested, except the case of the assassinated journalist Atwar Bahjat, one of those involved in terrorist acts confessed killing after he has been arrested.
The assassinations did not stop, and the results of the “fact-finding committee” that was formed about a year ago to reveal those involved in the killing of protesters, as well as the results of the investigation committees that were formed after each assassination, have not been made public and no involvement by any party has yet been uncovered.
Qusai Abbas, a member of the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee, says that the committee chaired by Al-Kazemi follows up on the issue and everyone is waiting for its results. We hope that we will get to the facts and the real perpetrators will be identified and brought to justice as soon as possible. ”
Abbas held the Government responsible for the delay in announcing the results and exposing those responsible. He asserted that his parliamentary committee was “unaware of the reasons for the delay.”
As the elections approach, he assumes the government’s unwillingness, to “hold any political party accountable, because it will probably create confusion in the political situation.”
The statements of members of the Parliament from various forces correspond to those of Abbas, while government officials have been repeating the same words for about a year: “Investigations are in their final stages and the results will be made public once they are complete.” And after each assassination, the Prime Minister says: “We’re going after the killers… They will not escape justice. ”
Simultaneously with official statements that are getting nowhere, prominent activists continue to accuse “Fateh” coalition, particularly Kata’ib Hezbollah (Brigades of the Party of God) and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), of involvement in assassinations. The leaders of the various political forces shirk the identification of those involved, although some of their members accused, in private conversations, Al Fateh parties of involving in assassinations.
The activists’ accusations are lining up with the results of investigations with members of the death squad. According to security sources, only four of the 11 wanted members of the group led by Ahmed Abdul Karim Rakabi, known as Ahmed Tawissa, were arrested while the others managed to escape.
Some of them took refuge in the headquarters of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Basra, which the security forces were unable to enter because of the status of wanted persons in the “Hezbollah Brigades”. They were later smuggled out of Basra.
But Adnan Al-Zorfi, President of the “Victory Parliamentary Bloc,” rules out the existence of a body that embraces those accused, he said the investigations will determine whether the accused are acting alone or there is a specific local or regional actors behind them, and “no one can be allowed to embrace or deal with these criminal cells.”
Al-Zorfi believes that in the end,” the facts cannot be hidden from the gang and those behind it because the case has become a public opinion case, and confessions will certainly show whether these groups are linked to others in the rest of the provinces that have seen assassinations.
Will the killers be held accountable?
Most activists and journalists have no confidence in the possibility that the current Government, with its various devices, into which armed groups are seared, will hold the murderers of activists and journalists accountable. They suspected that investigations would lead to influential arrests among those groups, or that the arrests would end in trials and repressive provisions.
“The government knows the killers, but it cannot declare their identities, and is unable to arrest them. The arrests of the Basra death squad faded away, and Sajjad Al-Iraqi case has turned into a scandal that exposed the weakness of the government and its security services.”
There was a remarkable development in the Al-Wazani file, Wednesday dawn, May 26, a special security force affiliated with the Counter-Terrorism Service was able to arrest a leader in the Popular Mobilization, Qassem Musleh, in an airdrop operation carried out in the Dawra area, south of Baghdad. Musleh is the commander of a brigade known as AL Toufouf that is dissident from the Popular Mobilization Brigades” and affiliated to Sayyid Sistani religious authority.
According to a national security official, the operation took place based on information provided by officials in Al Atabat mobilization to the Government about the actions of the detained Musleh, including his involvement in the assassination of Ehab Al-Wazni and Fahm Al-Ta’i.
He added that Mustafa Al-Kazemi’s government only arrested him after street and Najaf’s authority pressure.
Suspicion about investigation findings is not related to this group only. There are four other detainees in Baghdad accused of assassinating activist Tahsin Osama in his office at Al-Bahu Street in El Geneina district in August 2020, according to Hossein Al-Shahmani, Tahsin’s uncle. “We know the names of the accused, their clans, and their addresses in Basra. We refused, however, that the case takes a way other than the legal and judicial course to punish the perpetrators of the crime. We do not know why Tahsin was assassinated, and the perpetrator is still unknown, but the information received says that the executors had a legal fatwa.” He said.
One of those involved in the assassination left outside Iraq and then returned, while six others are still moving freely, and no one arrested them until now. Top brass in Basra is involved in the case. In the end, the victims’ families feel that their children’s blood has been wasted and the government is involved in hiding the crimes.”
Ehab Al-Wazni’s mother accused the Governor of Karbala Nasif Jassim Al-Khattab, the Chief of Police of Karbala Ahmed Al-Zouini, and the Karbala Operations chief Ali Al-Hashemi of being behind the act of facilitating the assassination of her son.
“If these three people, can’t reveal the killers of my son, then they are colluding with killers because they know who killed Ehab. My assassinated son handed over all the names to the Karbala police chief for those who threatened him and participated in the killing of protesters and activists.” She said.
She was crying and heartbroken because she lost her son. “ Ehab asked the Chief of Police to grant give him an arms permit, but his request was rejected by the Chief of Police and the Chief of Operations and they told him they were responsible for his protection.”
Neither the government nor the Prime Minister’s office had any contact with Ehab’s mother who accused Al-Kazemi’s government of “covering up the crimes against activists.”
In a video shared on social media, Kudus’s Mother, heartbroken like Ehab’s mother, is sitting cross-legged, mourning her son and pouring her tears on his grave in the Wadi al-Salam cemetery in Najaf, and expressing her sadness and oppression.
Many activists and journalists escaped their areas or the country because of death threats. Their families also did not escape persecution. Their families’ homes have been subject to grenades and improvised explosive devices, to send them a threatening message and telling them to leave immediately. All of this happened and the government is watching.