In Iraq protests, counting the dead is a dangerous job

Maya Gebeily
Anti-government protests in Iraq have left more than 250 people dead and 10,000 wounded since October 1 (AFP Photo/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)

Baghdad (AFP) - One protester killed. Then five. Suddenly, more than 40. As Iraq's anti-government demonstrations turned bloody, a network of rights defenders and medics began documenting deaths to fill a gag order on casualty numbers.

Remarkably, the watchdog at the heart of the effort is itself a government entity: the Iraqi Human Rights Commission, created in 2012 but now facing its most important -- and politically sensitive -- mission yet.

When protests erupted on October 1, the first casualty report of one protester shot dead and 200 more wounded in the capital was released by the health ministry.

But as more reports came in of live rounds and alleged indiscriminate force used against protesters across Baghdad and the south, the government clammed up.

It released no further tolls, imposed an internet blackout and halted information-sharing with the commission.

"The ministries of health and interior stopped giving us numbers," said Faysal Abdallah, a journalist by training and commission member since 2017.

"So we started going to the morgues to get numbers of dead, the hospitals to learn of the wounded and the police stations for numbers of detainees," he told AFP.

As protests grew, the commission published statements on the rising toll, which would sometimes spike suddenly.

Those jumps, members said, reflected delays caused by the resistance they faced from hospital administrators wary of contravening official orders not to release figures.

During the government's two-week internet blackout, the commission texted updated tolls to reporters and other monitors.

When the internet returned with restrictions on social media, the rights body circumvented the blocks again to publish numbers on Facebook and Telegram, remaining the only named source for a toll.

It pledged to file a lawsuit against the health ministry for "misleading public opinion."

- 'Impossible to record' -

The violence deployed against the initial wave of protests from October 1 to 6 sparked worldwide condemnation, and a government probe even concluded "excessive force" was used.

The inquiry, whose results were released October 22, found that 157 people were killed, mainly protesters in the capital who suffered gunshot wounds to the head or chest.

A United Nations report published the same day said it encountered difficulties in its own investigation because public hospitals had been "restricted" from sharing statistics with outside organisations, including the UN.

Indeed, several medics in Baghdad and the south declined to talk to AFP about the subject, citing "instructions."

Others spoke anonymously and said they faced not only a gag order, but restrictions by security forces within the hospitals themselves.

One doctor in the capital, who asked his place of work not be named, said security forces ordered ambulances not to pick up wounded protesters for several hours on October 4.

"I'm sure the total death toll is much higher than the official numbers," the doctor said.

The commission has also recorded dozens of arrests by security forces in hospitals.

Witnesses told AFP they had seen armed men recording the names and identifying information of patients in Baghdad hospitals, particularly if they were seeking treatment for tear gas or bullet wounds.

"Many people came in with gunshot wounds but just asked to be bandaged and discharged because they were afraid of being arrested," a second medic in Baghdad said.

"That makes it impossible for us to record the number of wounded properly," he added.

- 'No one's talking' -

Protests resumed on October 24, with the commission documenting 100 deaths, mostly demonstrators, since then.

Gathering reliable tolls has only become more difficult, with the most demonstrative case in the holy city of Karbala in the south.

Clashes broke out there on October 28 between protesters and security forces, with AFP's correspondent reporting heavy gunfire near the provincial headquarters.

The governor and security forces said no one had died in the incident, but medical sources provided varied numbers.

Karbala's forensics department said one 24-year-old male was killed, while a doctor there reported three dead had arrived at his hospital alone.

"The forensics department has strict orders. No one's talking," the doctor said.

Even the commission struggled to confirm a toll beyond the death reported by Karbala's forensics chief amid fears it was being boxed out.

"We used to work on cold cases, old violations. But these are different -- these need a rapid response," said member Ali Bayati, a doctor.

The body was formed by parliamentary decree and is funded by the government, putting them in a precarious spot.

Bayati said commission members had been assaulted, wounded and warned to stop.

"I've gotten many threats from unknown numbers that call and say what we're doing is unacceptable," he told AFP.

But Bayati said the commission's unique position also meant it could mediate between the Iraqi government and the protesters demanding its collapse.

"We could create that bridge. But will the government allow that?" he said.