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Iraqi security forces are using tear gas cartridges to kill protesters

Security forces have fired tear gas cartridges directly at protesters in Baghdad on numerous occasions since protests resumed on 25 October, killing at least 16. According to Amnesty International, two previously unseen types of tear gas grenades has been used to kill rather than disperse protesters by the Iraqi authorities.

“All the evidence points to Iraqi security forces deploying these military-grade grenades against protesters in Baghdad, apparently aiming for their heads or bodies at point-blank range. This has had devastating results, in multiple cases piercing the victims’ skulls, resulting in gruesome wounds and death after the grenades embed inside their heads,” said Lynn Maalouf, Middle East Research Director at Amnesty International, in a statement.

The dead are among the large number of protesters Iraqi forces have killed since daily protests began on 1 October in Baghdad and in other cities in southern Iraq against corruption and for better public services, among other demands. By 29 October, more than 250 people had been killed and the number keeps increasing every day.

According to a report published on 5 November by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq, the nationwide death toll from 25 October through November 4 reached at least 97. The Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights tallied at least 105 dead and 5,655 injured during that same period. From 5 to 6 November, Reuters reported that security forces had killed at least six more protesters.

“The high death toll includes people who took direct hits to the head from tear gas cartridges, in numbers that suggest a gruesome pattern rather than isolated accidents,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in a press release. “With the death toll now at over 100, all of Iraq’s global partners should be unequivocal in their condemnation.”

Amnesty’s Digital Verification Corps geolocated and analysed video evidence from near Baghdad’s Tahrir Square documenting the fatalities and injuries – including charred flesh and “smoking” head wounds. Its military expert identified the types of tear gas grenades being used as two variants from Iran and Serbia that are modelled on military grenades and are up to ten times as heavy as standard tear gas canisters, resulting in horrific injuries and death when fired directly at protesters.

“Since 25 October, the anti-riot [police] has not stopped launching tear gas and ‘smokers’ into the crowd, whether provoked or not. It is continuous and random. […] They are not using them to disperse, they are using them to kill. All the deaths in Baghdad have been from these canisters going inside the protesters’ bodies. They do not think about the fact that there are families and children in the crowds,” a male protester in Baghdad told Amnesty.

While relying increasingly on tear gas in Baghdad, security forces are continuing to use live ammunition. Between 4 and 6 November, live ammunition killed at least 14 more protesters in Baghdad, according to Reuters. Human Rights Watch reviewed three videos identifiably shot at Jumhuriya Bridge, and shared via social media between 25 October and 5 November, showing dead protesters with wounds to the head that do not appear to have been caused by tear gas cartridges.

Under international human rights standards, law enforcement may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required to achieve a legitimate policing objective. Forces should only use tear gas when necessary to prevent further physical harm; where possible, they should issue warnings before firing. They should take into account the likely impact of their use of tear gas, especially in enclosed spaces or if fired at close range, on vulnerable groups, including children.

During violent protests, the use of tear gas should be proportional to the seriousness of the offense, should meet a legitimate law enforcement objective, and should preferably be used alongside other non-lethal methods. The deliberate use of lethal force is permissible only when it is strictly necessary to protect life.

“Given Iraq’s history of civil unrest and international training not only for military operations but also for crowd control, Iraqi authorities should not get a free pass for misusing tear gas as a lethal weapon instead of a crowd dispersal method,” Whitson said.

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