After armed men raided Hussein Adel al-Madani and his wife Sara Talib’s home last year, the Iraqi activists spent months in self-imposed exile in Turkey, changed address on returning and stopped participating in protests, according to friends.
A day after anti-government demonstrations erupted in Baghdad in October, unidentified gunmen believed by activists to be working on behalf of Iran-backed militia shot the couple dead in their Basra home , said the friends and security sources familiar with the incident. Sara was pregnant.
“It was a message. No matter who you are, how peacefully you object – if you go out and demonstrate, you’ll be threatened, locked up, or killed,” said a friends, an activist who gave the name Abbas, an alias, for fear of reprisal from armed groups.
Reuters interviews with five officials and more than half a dozen Iraqi rights activists depict a pattern of mass arrests, intimidation and torture and in some cases, targeted killings of Iraqi protesters.
On Friday, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi announced his resignation following protests calling for the removal of a government viewed as corrupt and the powerful Iran-backed paramilitary groups that support it. Iraqis say the resignation will not curb the power of corrupt officials or armed groups.
At least six activists were shot dead in or near their homes over the past year in what appear to be targeted assassinations, according to activists and a government official. They believe Iran-backed militia were behind the deaths because those killed were openly critical of the militias and received threats based on their anti-government and anti-Iranian activism.
The number of targeted killings and details of intimidation tactics used in the crackdown have not previously been reported. Activists say it amounts to a campaign intended to silence dissidents and is causing them to abandon protests or consider fleeing.
An Iranian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said accusations of killings and threats by militias Tehran supports were “baseless.”
Ahmed al-Asadi, a spokesman for the state umbrella grouping of paramilitary factions including the biggest Iran-backed militias, could not be reached for comment. The body previously denied involvement in killing protesters and activists.
Iraqi government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi declined to comment on the assassination of activists.
Iraqi authorities arrested and released some 2 500 protesters, with another 240 detained on criminal charges. More than 400 people died since October during the biggest challenge to Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim-dominated, Iran-backed political class that emerged after a 2003 US-led invasion which toppled Saddam Hussein.
The protesters, many under 30, represent a cross-section of society clamouring for an overhaul of the post-2003 political system, which they say plundered state resources including abundant oil and pushed ordinary people into poverty. They are increasingly critical of Iran’s dominant role in the country.
According to two Iraqi security officials, it is not uncommon for those detained to be beaten, electrocuted and forced to sign pledges not to demonstrate or speak to media. Heads of Iraqi security services give their forces operating in Iraq the green light to detain “anyone they suspect of being a security threat or involved in inciting unrest,” one of the Iraqi security officials said.
Iraq government spokesman, al-Hadithi, denied those detained were tortured or subjected to violence, adding the Justice Ministry and Supreme Judicial Council oversaw questioning of those arrested. He denied security services or the military were detaining peaceful protesters.
If activists have evidence of torture, it should be investigated, said Abdul Karim Khalaf, a government military and security spokesman. He added “we have not had any confirmation of this happening.”
Iraqi authorities say some protesters tried to incite violence after properties in Baghdad and the headquarters of Iran-aligned parties in southern cities were burned. More than a dozen security force members were killed and scores injured in the unrest, authorities said.
Demonstrators last week torched the Iranian consulate in the southern holy city Najaf, the strongest expression yet of anti-Iranian sentiment by protesters as the gulf widens between a largely Iran-aligned ruling elite and an increasingly desperate Iraqi majority with few opportunities and minimal state support.
Hussein Adel al-Madani and his wife were among protesters openly opposing the influence of Iran-backed militias formally part of the armed forces after they helped the government defeat Islamic State in 2017.
Abbas, a close friend and former housemate of al-Madani, said the couple were among the first to protest last year in Basra and Sara was among the first women on the streets.
“They had to stop. Gunmen raided their home late in 2018 and asked them for names of other protesters,” he said, adding the couple were accused of helping to burn and destroy Iran’s Basra consulate.
“They decided to leave for Turkey until things calmed down.”
The couple returned to Basra days before the latest wave of protests on October 1, the security sources said. Armed men broke into the home, fatally shooting al-Madani in the chest and head and his wife in the head, they said.
The security sources did not say who they believed killed the couple. An investigation was being treated as a targeted killing by an unidentified armed group, they said. Yhey didn’t rule out other motives such as an honour killing by family members belonging to a militia who disapproved of their marriage.
“Investigators are working on the basis it was an organised armed group because it’s two victims were activists who were threatened,” one of the two sources said.
The government official, asked whether Iran-backed militiamen killed the couple to silence them, said: “A powerful militia threatened them, they fled and when they returned were killed. Everyone knows who did it, but doesn’t dare say.” He didn’t specify which group.
Other protesters died in circumstances activists and some government officials say points the finger at Iran-backed groups because protesters spoke out against them.
Gunmen driving unmarked cars killed two other activists in November using silenced pistols in separate incidents in Baghdad and southern Amara, the two security officials said.
In the Baghdad incident, Adnan Rustum (41) was shot dead returning from an anti-government protest in his neighbourhood. Asked whether Iran-backed militia were responsible, local police sources said Rustum’s role in protests was the reason he was killed but didn’t elaborate.
The Iraqi parliament’s human rights committee demanded government investigate “assassinations and kidnappings” of activists and bloggers, including Rustum’s death.
Previously reported by Reuters, Iran-backed militias deployed snipers on Baghdad rooftops during anti-government protests in October.
Four activists Reuters spoke to said they were arrested and two said they were detained and beaten in recent weeks. They asked their names not be published for fear of being targeted by security forces or militias.
One protester described being arrested shortly after leaving a demonstration, beaten and electrocuted during 10 days of detention.
“They asked me for names and addresses of other protesters, which I did,” said the 26-year old man.
“I refused to confess to attacking police and damaging property but signed a document promising not to demonstrate again and not to talk to the press. They said they’d kill me if I did.” He denied involvement in attacks or vandalism.
The man said he was released, wrapped in a blanket and left outside his home in Baghdad after relatives pleaded for his freedom with contacts in security forces and a paramilitary group. Reuters could not independently verify his account.
“Those detained and released are released on bail. Charges are not dropped so they face re-arrest and trial,” said Hassan Wahab from Baghdad-based human rights group Amal Association.
“Many people are fleeing, either heading to Erbil (the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region) or abroad,” Wahab said.