Last summer, the southern city of Basra was one of the first to see large anti-government protests. And this year, it was expected that protests in Basra would once again lead the way. But instead, they were slow to start there and smaller than expected, even as demonstrators were already on the streets in places like Baghdad and in other southern areas like Dhi Qar, Diwaniyah and Maysan.
Locals say this is because the violence that eventually occurred in Baghdad and other areas, had already happened in Basra last year and people were scared. Last summer dozens of Basra’s protestors were detained. While in custody they were beaten, treated badly and in some cases, tortured. Before they were released, many were also forced to sign pledges that they would not protest again. Threats were made against the lives of demonstrators, some of which appear to have been realised this year.
The threats were always the same. They basically said: Your name is on the list and you will be assassinated.
Bassam Mohammed* was one of those protesting in Basra last year and he recounts how he and four of his friends were detained at a demonstration near Al Arousa square in the central city. “I saw around a hundred young people joining a protest that started near the markets,” he told NIQASH. “We joined them but it was then that we were arrested. We were detained for five hours and taken to the Basra operations centre. Our statements were taken and we were obliged to sign a piece of paper even though we were not allowed to see what was written on it,” he says. “We were told later by one of the other detainees who was with us that it was a promise not to join in any protests in the future.”
Fear of retribution for breaking that promise was not the only thing that held Basra’s protestors back. Abdul Rahman Kathem*, another of the demonstrators, says that when the Internet was cut off, it made organising meeting places almost impossible. A lot of people wanted to join in, Kathem says, but they didn’t know where to go.
“All that, combined with detention and threats as well as strict measures taken against other local activists, was enough to silence people in this city,” Kathem explained.
It wasn’t until the evening of the second day of protests, that Basra residents really joined in again. Around 2,000 people gathered near the Ashar market in central Basra. Security forces tried to disperse them and to prevent the crowd from marching toward the headquarters of local government in the Maqal neighbourhood about five kilometres away – but they were unsuccessful.
After around two hours, the crowd reached the government buildings, which had already been surrounded by a large military contingent. After around a four-hour standoff, security forces began using tear gas and most of the crowd was forced to disperse; some protesters refused to leave though, and started setting tires alight.
Among this crowd were well-known activists, Sara Taleb, who was six months pregnant, and her husband, Hussein Adel, an artist. They carried a large first aid bag and were helping to treat those who were injured or affected by tear gas. Later on, a group of unknown assailants driving a car with no license plates, stopped outside the couple’s apartment in the Janinah district of Basra. They apparently entered the apartment and shot the young couple to death.
Although the couple had previously reported death threats to the police, the following day Basra’s chief of police, Rashid Fulieh, told a local radio station that the murders had nothing to do with the couple’s participation in demonstrations. “This is a criminal case,” he said, adding that investigations were ongoing.
Sources close to the Taleb and Adel said that the pair had already received death threats after last year’s demonstrations and had actually left the country for a short time, fearing for their lives. They eventually returned because it was too difficult to live out of Iraq.
“The threats were always the same,” the source, who wished to remain anonymous because of fears for their own personal safety, told NIQASH. “They basically said: Your name is on the list and you will be assassinated.” This year too, there are rumours of a list of activists, demonstrators and media personnel.
At a press conference held after the couple’s funerals, both sets of parents insisted that their murdered children had no political or tribal affiliations and had only been demonstrating for civil rights.
On October 13, friends and relatives of the couple gathered for a memorial on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab, in front of the statue of Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. The small group carried pictures of Adel and Taleb as well as other demonstrators. They had also taped their lips with red cellotape, in the shape of an X, to symbolise how the Iraqi people were being silenced and how the space for freedom of expression had just shrunk again.
*None of the activists quoted in this story are using their real names because of security fears.