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Armed forces in Iraqi Kurdistan shoot at protesters, killing one

A Kurdish Peshmerga soldier is silhouetted outside the Kurdish city of Erbil, Iraq, 2 January 2017
A Kurdish Peshmerga soldier is silhouetted outside the Kurdish city of Erbil, Iraq, 2 January 2017

REUTERS/Christophe Ena/Pool

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 30 March 2017.

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) armed forces fired rubber and live bullets and teargas canisters at protesters in Sinjar on March 14, 2017, killing one person and wounding at least seven, Human Rights Watch said today. KRG authorities should investigate the use of lethal force against the protesters.

Three protesters told Human Rights Watch that they and the other protesters were unarmed and peaceful when the Rojava Peshmerga forces, Syrian fighters integrated into a unit under the KRG's Interior Ministry and stationed in Sinjar, opened fire. They said some protesters threw rocks at the Rojava Peshmerga forces, but only after armed forces opened fire. One Rojava Peshmerga commander told Human Rights Watch on March 26 that a small number of protesters were armed and fired live bullets which caused the death and injuries, but this was contradicted by the other witnesses.

"We have not seen any evidence that military forces in Sinjar had a legitimate reason to fire on protesters, who presented no apparent risk to their lives or others," said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The government should urgently investigate this apparently unwarranted use of deadly force."

Human Rights Watch has been unable to find any public statement by the authorities about the incident or explaining the use of force.

The three protesters told Human Rights Watch that on March 14, at about 10 a.m., hundreds of protesters, including women and children, gathered near Khanasoor, a town in Sinjar under the control of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). They were protesting the presence of the Rojava Peshmerga, a military force attached to the leading party in the KRG, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, in the area since it was retaken from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in late 2015.

The protesters said they travelled as a group in cars from Khanasoor toward the neighboring town of Snune, where a larger number of Rojava Peshmerga were stationed. At about 11:45 a.m., the protesters said, they approached a berm where the Rojava Peshmerga were stationed, with women in the lead, chanting against their presence. When some of the protesters were about 10 meters from the berm, about 10 fighters out of about 200 who were stationed there started firing tear gas canisters, which lasted about 15 minutes. The protesters said they and others didn't pull back or respond with violence, but about 10 minutes later, without any warning, the fighters fired live bullets to disperse the crowd.

One protester, Haji Hassan, said that he saw four protesters fall to the ground after being shot, including Naze Naif, 21, who he said had a bullet hole in her head and died on the spot. Another protester said he was only a few meters from Naif when she was shot, and he grabbed her and carried her with the help of others to a car. He said he saw another protester, a 25-year-old man, shot in his left leg, one young woman shot in her right hand, and another in her right leg. The protesters provided Human Rights Watch with the names of four other demonstrators who were wounded and a description of their injuries.

Soon after the death of Naif, the protesters said, a number of security vehicles arrived and about 10 riot police joined the Rojava Peshmerga. At that point, two of the protesters said, they saw about 10 protesters start throwing stones at the riot police, but then the crowd dispersed very quickly. The Rojava Peshmerga commander who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that his forces called for backup from the riot police once protesters arrived and that the protesters then started throwing stones at the riot police, who responded by firing rubber bullets, but that this did not lead to any casualties.

This is just the most recent crackdown after recent clashes in Sinjar between the PKK and the Rojava Peshmerga. Kurdish media reported that starting on March 3, 2017, the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party's security forces in northern Syria detained more than 40 members of the Kurdish National Council, a party affiliated with the KRG's President Masoud Barzani. On March 4, KRG security forces and local police detained 32 unarmed protesters in Erbil at a peaceful demonstration over the recent clashes in Sinjar. According to three protesters who were arrested, 23 people were released that same day, and three more within four days, but six, all foreign nationals, are still being held.

Under the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, the authorities should "as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms." The "intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life." The Principles state that, in cases of death or serious injury, appropriate agencies should conduct a review and send a detailed report promptly to competent administrative or prosecutorial authorities.

The government should ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense. Superior officers should be held responsible if they knew or should have known that personnel under their command resorted to the unlawful use of force and firearms but did not take all measures in their power to prevent, suppress, or report such use.

"KRG authorities should ensure all armed forces engaged in law enforcement duties are not using excessive force, especially lethal force, and hold accountable those who do, including commanders," Fakih said.

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