Ahmed Hasan, Translated by Walaa Rayya.
On February 22, 2020, at around 8 p.m., Muhammad Ali (a pseudonym) was waiting for a taxi near Kahramana square in central Baghdad to take him to New Baghdad in the south-east of the Iraqi capital. From there the young protester would continue on his way home on Palestine Street.
However, he would never get there. The car he took moved him to a world that would change his life forever.
When a white Kia car with four passengers stopped, it seemed unsuspicious to Muhammad. He got in and exchanged greetings before silence prevailed. A few minutes later, the car changed its way. It headed towards Abu Nawas Street on the Tigris River, when one passenger took out a gun with a silencer and pointed it at Muhammad. “Shut up if you want to live.”
With these words, Muhammad’s kidnapping journey began. It ended with isolation, paranoia, and a terrible fear.
The 23-year-old has been unemployed and looking for a job ever since graduating from the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Baghdad in the summer of 2019.
Amidst the wave of protests demanding reform in October 2019, he quickly became involved in supporting the movement. He took part in establishing the student sit-in tents on Saadoun Street leading up to Tahrir Square. For months he worked passionately in fundraising to provide food, bedding, medicine, and gas masks.
“Hopes of ending corruption and reforming the political system filled his soul before it all ended the moment he took that white car that brought darkness into his world, and turned his dreams into nightmares,” said one of his friends.
In early February 2020, after only four months of protests, the National Institute for Human Rights (NIHR) reported the abduction of 72 people, of whom 22 were released, as well as 49 assassination attempts targeting activists, bloggers and journalists. The numbers escalated in the following months. Fadel al-Graoui, who works for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in June 2021 said that, regarding the “numbers of missing persons,” all but 18 of the 76 disappeared have been identified.
Seeing the successive crackdowns along with arrests and kidnappings, activists preferred not to take a car in the areas near Tahrir Square. To them, the streets there were known as “death alleys,” as masked gunmen, away from the eyes of police and protesters, turned them into theaters of abduction and murder
“It was a necessary protective step against being targeted at Tahrir Square, said Abbas, a 20-year-old “tuk tuk” driver, who had been transporting protesters from the center at Al Tahrir to Kahramana square. “But armed groups linked to the parties, which considered the demonstrations a danger, started kidnapping activists from Kahramana after carefully tracking them.”
In November and December 2019, at least 103 attempted killings and abductions took place in the streets of Al-Saadoun, Al-Nidal, and Abu Nawas, according to the testimonies of 10 activist group leaders and agents of the Establishment Protection Service, which was responsible for inspecting anyone entering Tahrir Square.
For almost a year, the many thousands of protesters on and around Tahrir Square watched their comrades fall and die at the hands of live bullets and gas canisters. According to government figures, more than 560 people were killed and over 20,000 injured.
On the night Muhammad was kidnapped, Abbas had taken him and two of his companions (Wael and Maysara) to Kahramana, where the three friends split up. Muhammad stayed alone for a few minutes, using his mobile phone and waiting for a car.
Armed groups preferred “to hunt lone activists to facilitate their kidnapping without any witnesses,” Abbas said.
A year after his kidnapping, in a small room in the family home, Muhammad agreed to receive us with his father and sister present and several preconditions: “No cameras, no phones, no recording devices.”
As his father was talking about the difficult days they had lived through, the young man was looking at us for a few minutes as if trying to figure out our intentions. And then he started talking.
”That night they took me to an abandoned orchard in the Dawra area south of Baghdad, near the oil refinery,” he said. “They acted calmly, took my phone, and did not blindfold me to pass through checkpoints. At one of the checkpoints, they said they were affiliated with the National Security Service.”
“On the way there, they had told me they wanted to verify the sources of the funds that I had collected to support the demonstrations,” he said. “But after passing the presidential brigade checkpoint, they entered a dirt road, on which there was a checkpoint with two agents in military clothes standing next to a Toyota pickup with a flag of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The barrier was raised and we were allowed to pass. After a few minutes, which seemed very long to me, as I was thinking about the fate awaiting me, we arrived at the orchard.”
“When we got there, the kidnappers beat me up,” Muhammad continued. “One of them grabbed my shirt and pulled me out of the car and I fell to the ground. Four people with beards were waiting. They were carrying batons. When I woke up I found myself in a small, windowless room. I didn’t know if it was morning or evening. The hours passed by slowly interrupted by sessions of repeated questioning, insults, and torture. The men were in their late thirties, all dressed in yellow shirts and green pants.”
Ransom and Death Threats
After eight days without any news Muhammad’s family contacted the security forces which all had the same answer: “Your son is not detained by us.”
One day, Muhammad’s father, who works as a public servant, received a message from the kidnappers via Telegram asking him to sign a white paper preventing his son from participating in student sit-ins and collecting donations in exchange for his release. They also told him to not disclose to anyone any information about what his son had been exposed to.
Several days later, Muhammad appeared, following a complicated release procedure, which involved a Shiite cleric, who lives in the Zaafaraniyah area and acts as a mediator between the families of the victims and the kidnappers. He receives thousands of dollars for each operation. We saw the messages exchanged between Muhammad’s father and the mediator, in addition to voice calls and photos of his kidnapped son bearing signs of torture all over his body including his face. The mediator received $5,000 in two payments.
“Thank God, my son survived and returned, but he became an introvert,” said Muhammad’s father. “For weeks after his return, he refused to meet his friends and even his brothers.”
The Kidnappings Never Stopped
At the peak of the demonstrations between October 2019 and January 2020, hundreds of activists were subjected to arrest, kidnapping and torture. This continued after the protests declined and stopped with the formation of a new government.
Jaafar al-Khasib (a pseudonym) was one of the Basra activists. He preferred not to give his name to avoid being tracked. In October 2020, he fled first to Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region and then to Turkey following a kidnap attempt in central Basra, in which he nearly lost his life.
“It happened in mid-September 2020, on Algeria Street, minutes after I had left the house,” Khasib told us. “While I was passing a parked white Toyota pickup, I was surprised by a loud sound coming from its engine. I turned and saw someone pointing a gun at me. I was standing in front of a shop. Scared, and without thinking, I ran into the shop screaming and bumping into the employees, while behind me I heard the sound of gunfire.”
“I was lucky because the shop had a back door onto a public street,” he continued. “I came out of the garage next door. I begged the people to help me. One of them directed me to the bathrooms. I stayed there for about a quarter of an hour. I was like paralyzed. I didn’t know what to do. Death was stalking me. Then they told me the gunmen had fled after shooting one of the employees in his left leg.”
The group chasing al-Khasib was composed of three persons. They were planning to kidnap, not kill him. Hours after the incident, local police inspected the area and home of the al-Khasib family and conducted a formal investigation after the shop owner had reported what happened.
Al-Khatib submitted his statement to the investigating officer, who blamed him for helping to organize the demonstrations and held him responsible for what had happened.
“He also said my family was suffering because of me,” al-Khatib said. “And he told me clearly that the police could not protect me and it would be best for me to leave Basra as soon as possible. Then he whispered in my ear the name of a well-known figure in Basra, who had been pursuing activists and protesters.”
During the months of us documenting kidnapping cases, many activists informed us that between September and October 2020, they had received information about the “intention” of one specific group that aimed to execute activists and that they had “fatwas” legalizing the murder of “traitors” working for America, Britain and the Gulf countries.
In the same period, journalists received information from security elements close to the Prime Minister’s office, that there is a “death list” with the names of some 70 journalists and activists. Armed groups close to the parties in power wanted to kill them for “communicating with countries hostile to the resistance factions.”
The security forces have proved unable to protect protesters from the armed groups that “believe the protests are a conspiracy to threaten their existence.” And it seems the security forces prefer not to be a partner in such a crime. So they leaked the names of activists and journalists who are now threatened with kidnapping or murder.
This information was leaked only days after two of Basra’s most prominent activists were assassinated: Tahseen al-Shahmani on August 14 and Reham Yaqoub on August 19, while Ludia Raymond and Abbas Subhi only just managed to escape.
291 Assassination Attempts
The kidnappings and assassinations that took place following the 2019 October Movement were not limited to Baghdad and Basra. It concerned nine provinces, according to an official document that mentions the names and dates of the assassinations and shows that most of the operations took place between 4 and 11 PM and were carried out with a variety of machine guns
The document counted 291 attempted murders, either immediate or following an abduction. As a result, 80 activists and demonstrators in Baghdad, Babylon, Karbala, Najaf, Diwaniya, Muthanna, Nasiriyah, Missan, and Basra were killed, 122 others were injured, and 89 survived without injury
An officer in the National Security Service who we contacted several times before he finally agreed to meet with us in a cafe in central Baghdad, said, on condition of anonymity, that the assassinations took place in “an organized manner, carried out by an armed group operating under the watchful eye of the Ministry of Interior and with the support of the Shiite political parties.”
The same officer revealed that a “Protest Suppression Chamber” was formed under the chairmanship of Interior Minister Yassin Elyasri. “When the demonstrations intensified, they formed this ‘chamber’ to confront it,” he said. “To them the demonstrations were an organized and funded operation to target the authorities and the parties that have armed groups.”
“The chamber’s meetings included representatives of the Ministry of Defense, the intelligence service, national security officers, the PMF and influential party members,” he said.
“We knew there was such a special operations room,” he continued. “It seems that elements of it were planted within the riot police and they were the ones using live bullets and tear gas canisters to kill and intimidate the demonstrators.”
This information confirms statements by Yahya Rasoul, spokesman for the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, about the involvement of elements of the Ministry of the Interior (riot police), in using live bullets and tear gas canisters to kill demonstrators. He accused the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi of these crimes.
For over a year, Nasiriyah remained the center of the largest protests in southern Iraq. Here too kidnapping and assassination attempts took place to force the participants to withdraw. Activist Ali Mehdi Ajil was subjected to two assassination attempts. The first occurred on November 28, 2020.
“I was driving towards the Nasiriyah police station to release the protesters who got arrested following the clashes and burning of tents in al-Habubi Square,” he said. “On Nabi Ibrahim Street, I saw a large motorcycle following me. It carried three hooded men. I quickly headed to the intersection, as I knew the bike was chasing me.”
A few days earlier, masked men on a motorbike had fired three bullets, also on Nabi Ibrahim Street. One bullet had hit the windshield of his car. Ajil ruled out the Sadrist Movement’s Saraya Al-Salam being involved.
He believed an armed political party affected by the demonstrations “sought to take advantage of the dispute between the demonstrators and Saraya Al-Salam and carried out a campaign of assassinations to sow discord, and push the demonstrators to accuse the Sadrists who had attacked the square and burnt the tents after Al-Sadr had called for an end to the sit-ins.”
The Story of Sajjad
Several months after the spread of the Coronavirus, which had affected the protests’ momentum, and the formation of a new government, the demonstrations ended. On September 19, 2020, Sajjad Al-Iraqi, a young activist, was kidnapped in Nasiriyah. His fate is still unknown.
“We were five people in a car, heading to a friend who got injured in the protests,” said Hajji Basem Falih, who was with Iraqi when he got kidnapped. “We discovered that two cars were following us, so we stopped. Four armed men wearing masks got out. They asked us to remain silent and not move. Then they asked Sajjad to go with them.”
During the quarrel that followed Falih recognized one of the kidnappers’ voices: Idris Al-Ibrahimi. According to Falih, Al-Ibrahimi is an important figure who belongs to the Badr Organization led by Hadi Al-Amiri. He is a Dhi Qar resident and works for the Prisoners and Martyrs Foundation. He used to be a prominent PMF fighter.
Falih called upon Al-Ibrahimi for help, using his nickname. “Haji Abu Zahraa, please leave Sajjad.”
But that did not work. Ibrahimi got irritated and told Falih to stay silent. He then broke the side window of the car with his pistol, while another gunman dragged Sajjad from the back seat and put him in the kidnappers’ car, before he returned and shot Falih, as he had identified Ibrahimi. He was severely injured yet miraculously survived after being transferred to the Nasiriyah Hospital.
The incident sparked a wave of outrage among activists and forced the government’s counter-terrorism unit to search for Sajjad and arrest the kidnappers. There were several unsuccessful attempts to communicate with the parties close to the kidnappers, but everything failed and to this day Sajjad’s fate remains unknown. Meanwhile, the security services have kept the identities of the kidnappers secret, as well as all details regarding the operation.
Sajjad’s mother says she knows the actors involved in the kidnapping of her son. They are affiliated with an influential party. “There has been no investigation,” she said. “The case has been neglected and put on hold. So, there is nothing new and the security forces did not inform us of anything. Rather, we are the ones providing them with information. The kidnappers’ names are known. Four witnesses have conclusive evidence that a person was involved in snitching on Sajjad, and he has disappeared since.”
Nine months after the incident, and dozens of promises made to Sajjad’s mother by senior officials, she does not hide her despair of not knowing her son’s fate.
“I don’t know if he is dead or alive,” she said. “Nothing is more difficult than that.”
For nearly a year, activists have been waiting for the results of the fact-finding committees to uncover those involved in the killing and kidnapping of protesters. Yet, the committees did not identify any persons or parties involved. It is an endless waiting game for the activists to forget their causes.
With the government remaining silent, voices among the protesters have started to directly accuse some of the parties in power and the armed factions associated with the PMF. They note that some media, especially those associated with Kataeb Hezbollah and Asaeb Ahl Hak, have shared statements, comments and writings that attacked the protests and questioned activists’ motives, accusing them of treason and receiving money from abroad.
Stalking Activists’ Families
Many activists’ homes have been attacked with firearms and sound bombs, including the house of activist Hussein Al – Ghrabi in Dhi Qar. Others received threatening messages by phone or through relatives.
According to activist Ali Mahdi Ajeel the armed groups do anything to stop the protests. “They hung a bloody baby doll on the door of my house,” he said. “It was a clear message that they know me, they know my house and my children. They could kill anyone if I don’t withdraw.”
“A while ago, while I drove home from work, near the Al-Hussein Hospital, a motorcycle driven by a masked person followed me and he asked me to stop,” said Malik al-Tayeb, whose activist brother Thaer was assassinated in December 2019. “He asked me to drop the lawsuit regarding my brother’s murder. Revealing killers would be an enormous risk to my life. He said his words and sped off. I tried tracking him down, but he went into the narrow alleyways and disappeared.”
Will they ever be held accountable?
Even after the arrest of several members of a “death gang” in Basra, which stand accused of carrying out a series of killings, including the assassination of journalist Ahmed Abd Al-Samad and his colleague photographer Safa Ghali, activists question if those involved will ever be held accountable and believe that impunity will continue to prevail.
However, according to Bader Al-Ziyadi, a Basra MP and member of the Parliamentary Security and Defense Committee, the arrests of some death gang members is “a message of reassurance to the people of Basra that the security services can arrest criminals, even after a while.”
He did not hide the fact that some security commanders had requested to move the accused from Basra to Baghdad “so that there will be no pressure on the security services and no change of testimony due to any internal or outside interference.” Al-Ziyadi expressed hope that the investigations will show “more about the motives behind these assassinations, and the nature of their members’ affiliations.”
Yahya Rasoul called upon the people to give the intelligence effort a chance to complete the investigations. The head of the Supreme Judicial Council and Al-Kazemi’s office also rejected the claim of Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s government that there was a “third party” involved. “This is fake information and has nothing to do with the truth,” he said. “There are two parties, the security forces and the demonstrators.” In November 2019, former Defense Minister, Najah Al-Shammari announced the presence of a third party he accused of killing protesters.
“We are fighting a losing battle”
Under a powerless government that has been infiltrated by political groups with armed wings, the Tishreen Movement activists are almost unanimous in thinking that it is impossible to hold those involved in the kidnappings and assassinations accountable. They doubt that the investigations will lead to trials and detentions. They point at the failure of the security agencies to arrest suspects living in Iraq, while others have left the country.
“We do not speak because we fear death,” said a well known journalist in Basra, who at first refused to talk to us, before finally accepting on condition of anonymity.
“We do not trust the security services. They are infiltrated and helpless. And the militias have the final say. They arrested a few people here, but they are just tools, while all the Basra agencies were unable to arrest the head of the group. And who says these people will ever be tried? We may wake up one day and hear about their release, due to insufficient evidence or their escape. We are in a losing battle.”
The despair linked to achieving change through the elections and holding perpetrators accountable has pushed the National House, one of the forces that emanated from the Tishreen Movement, to withdraw from participating in the elections.
“It is useless seeing the government’s inability to confront the power of the militias and their weapons,” said Hussein Al-Ghurabi, one of the National House’s founders. “How can I compete with them, while they hold all the cards?” “Replacing Abdul-Mahdi’s government with this one was useless,” said MP Abdul Qahar al-Samarrai, stressing the government’s failure to identify the culprits. “What the demonstrators were hoping for has not been done by this government. So, they are more resentful today than yesterday. And the forces operating outside state structures are increasing the tension.”
“Restoring confidence among the people comes from revealing the identities of the criminals,” he said. “And this should be a priority for the government. Otherwise it will be described just like its predecessors.”
The disappeared son and his murdered father
On March 10, 2021, Jaseb Hattab Al-Heliji, father of kidnapped lawyer Ali Jasp, was assassinated in the city of Amar hours after his participation in a commemoration ceremony for the murdered activist Abdul Quddus Qassem.
Jaseb was an old man known for his participation in the March protests and his activities on social media, since the kidnapping of his son on October 8, 2019, in front of the Al Rawi Mosque in central Amara. He has not been heard of since.
According to Al-Fiqa’i Al-Khaid, a relative of Jaseb, he was killed in Al-Amara, after he paid his respect to the Al-Quddus family. Hours later, the police announced they had arrested the culprit, “Hussein Abbas,” and that the motive was “a clan dispute.”
The Supreme Judicial Council reported that “the accused confessed that the victim (who is his aunt’s husband) was accusing him of kidnapping his son, which led to disputes and filing a complaint against him. The pressure he was subjected to prompted him to kill the victim.”
The Jaseb family, however, seems unconvinced and demands to reveal the identity of the entity who pushed the perpetrator to commit murder and was behind the abduction of their son Ali.
For about a year and a half, Jaseb had been trying to raise the disappearance issue. He participated in protests, showed pictures of his kidnapped son and his orphaned grandchildren, and demanded to know his son’s fate. “Despite evidence in telephone calls and text messages, persons accused of kidnapping have been called as witnesses, not defendants,” said Jaseb in a video. Jaseb’s waiting to know his son’s fate ended in his death. But his two grandchildren, without a father or grandfather, will grow up with a desire for revenge, while Sajjad’s mother will spend her remaining days between the pain of losing him and the hope of seeing him.
“I just want to know his fate, whether he is alive or dead, his burial place,” she said. “We do not deserve all this torment.”