Activists call for release of detained Basra protesters
LONDON - Activists are calling for the release of Iraqi protesters reportedly detained in Basra, and vowed to resume mass demonstrations for basic services in the southern city.
“We call for the immediate release of eight protesters who are still in detention without charge or access to lawyers. Some of them were taken from their homes by masked men in security uniforms,” political activist Mustafa al-Safi said by telephone.
“Protesters who were recently released said they had been tortured until they signed fake confessions of carrying out acts of vandalism and paid bail. The authorities aim to intimidate them so that they won’t demonstrate again.”
Safi said anti-corruption demonstrations would continue after Arbaeen, a religious commemoration that falls at the end of October this year.
Safi’s remarks were in sync with calls of other prominent activists. In a Facebook post, Abu Ali Fathi al-Mtouri, often referred to as the “sheikh of protesters” in Basra, called for the resumption of demonstrations after Arbaeen.
“Decision makers in the Green Zone are not interested in knowing about the suffering of Basra but they do eagerly follow international oil prices and the income that comes thanks to Basra’s oil and ports,” said Mtouri on October 17.
“Stay united until you win your constitutional rights. Keep your protests peaceful and disciplined,” urged Mtouri. “Pick representatives from your areas” to avoid infiltrations from those who have different agendas, he warned.
A day earlier, Mtouri called on Basra’s security officials to release the detained protesters. “I urge you to follow the cases of the detained people,” Mtouri told Lieutenant-General Jasim Nazal al-Maliki, chief of operations in Basra, during a meeting, a recording of which was shared on social media.
“You know that Basra collapsed completely due to the corruption that hit it. Protesters did not take to the streets from nothing. They did so because of the misery that befell them… Your responsibility as security forces is to protect, not persecute, citizens,” said Mtouri.
The tensions came as Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Adel Abdul-Mahdi announced he would soon present a new cabinet to parliament for approval.
“The prime minister-designate… is carrying out the necessary communications with the head of parliament and the blocs to set a day” for presenting the cabinet, his office said in a statement.
If Abdul-Mahdi fails to secure parliament’s approval for his cabinet by November 1, a new prime minister-designate may be named, further delaying the government formation process, which has been stumbling since May’s elections.
Outgoing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said he was preparing his ministries to carry out “a smooth transition” for the next government so their work would not be interrupted when Abdul-Mahdi took charge.
Basra contributes 95% of the country’s oil revenues and one of the key demands of protesters is providing jobs, especially in the oil sector, which is dominated by foreign workers. Iraqi Oil Minister Jabar al-Luaibi said on October 8 that new contracts with foreign oil companies would require them to employ Iraqi nationals for 85% of the workforce in a given project.
It remains to be seen if Iraq can meet the high demand for employment in the country despite recent pledges to provide thousands of jobs.
Protesters in Basra have also been demonstrating against electricity cuts, water shortages, pollution and absence of proper security. They say instead of feeling safe in their home city, they are often threatened by the presence of Iran-backed militias acting with impunity.
On September 27, the United States announced the closing of its consulate in Basra, citing threats from neighbouring Iran. “Iran is the origin of the current threat to Americans in Iraq,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on October 3. “Our intelligence in this regard is solid. We can see the hand of the ayatollah and his henchmen supporting these attacks on the United States.”
The Iranian consulate in Basra was attacked, too, during demonstrations. Protest leaders said infiltrators were responsible for the attack to discredit the anti-corruption movement. Tehran blamed “mercenary groups, which took orders from their enablers hostile to Iran,” in a reference to the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Hakim al-Zamili, a member of Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement, told Al-Monitor website that “the heated and tense statements exchanged between Iran and the United States will certainly be felt in Iraq.”
Also in September, masked gunmen killed Soad al-Ali, a human rights activist and mother of four, in a daytime attack in Basra. No one claimed responsibility but the assassination was understood as an attempt to silence criticism of the country’s main parties.