Interview: Iraq targeted killing and kidnapping of activists
MECRA interview with Kareem Botane on assassinations and kidnapping cases shed light on how the last month's campaign against high profile intellectuals, foreigners and protesters has impacted Iraq.
Iraqi commentator Hishim al-Hashimi was murdered on July 6. German artist Hella Mewis was kidnapped 20 and on July 24 she was freed. The perpetrators have not been found. MECRA sat down with Kareem Botane, a journalist and photographer, to discuss these recent incidents and if they have a chilling affect on protests and how they impact foreigners in Iraq, journalists and those who work with the international community or who are local intellectuals speaking out about issues in Iraq.
Kareem Botane: What happened is that Abu Ali al-Askari, security head of Kataib Hezbollah (KH) within the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), he came out with statement claiming this kidnapping is a kind of game of mixing cases and that we need investigations of who kidnapped the activist, who after several days was released. She was released based on intelligence of Iraqi forces and not the militias [PMU].
They found her in three days ago (July 24) and found the name and who is behind it. Those like Kataib Hezbollah were behind it but authorities won’t mention the names and that is why they keep this secret, the security forces took her out, from these “unrecognized forces,” and that was confirmed by the head of the PMU and KH and after releasing her. The head of intelligence of KH said how surprised he was that this German citizen was here for 8 years without papers, so they went from accusing [Prime Minister Mustafa] Kadhimi of kidnapping her, but now they have new excuses, so that is the indication of who was behind it and also there is footage of who followed her prior to the kidnapping.
Note: The confusing statements by KH appear to want to spread disinformation, seeking to both harm the reputation of the Prime Minister and also cast aspersions on Mewis. On June 25 members of KH were detained by the counter-terrorism service, apparently on orders from Kadhimi. When they were released on June 30 they burned images of the Prime Minister. KH is widely considered to be behind attacks on US forces using rockets over the last year. Earlier this year, before he was appointed Prime Minister, they also accused Kadhimi of being linked to the US killing of IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani and KH head Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January.
MECRA: And other activists are also in fear?
For other activists I have information. I have a friend in Mosul. He said that his friend was killed a month ago, and he was assassinated. He had been threatened before like other social activists. There is no risk for those who work for NGOs, but there are those who put out critical statements. The militias dominate all real estate in Mosul. So for instance this activists opposed them and he was threatened by 30th brigade, and they put his name on checkpoints and he can’t return to Mosul now. So they do his with people’s names. However in this case pressure was put on the local PMU brigade to let him go back, but they told him if he continued to write against them he will be disappeared and he asked what that means and they said he would be killed or put in a secret prison.
Another person I spoke to was threatened in Tahrir [square] in the protests. In Baghdad, there are several militia forces, and I have been stopped by their intelligence officers. Among the militias, I have been messaged by friends to be careful. They say if you are staying in Tahrir and covering the demonstration one should be careful. Saraya Khorosani militia and others may know who are the activists and there is a lot of pressure to get former leaders to return to KH and other brigades.
I spoke to one woman who is a social activist and she was threatened. Because she is an activist and woman’s right activists she was threatened directly. This time it came from close contacts in Hashd al-Shaabi [PMU] and they said if you go back to Tahrir that will be the last time we see you alive.
I asked some of these people who is behind this. Is it the militia or who else? They all blame the militias. They blame KH for kidnappings across central and southern Iraq, and individual threats to activists, and at the time time they go after those human rights activists.
About Hashimi, my friend told me that in relation to him he had produced a report in Al-Arabiya, talking about the leaders and the activists and they didn’t want him to continue the investigation, they told him KH would not leave him alone and he said they told him that "you will be killed in your house." Last night [July 27, 2020] after one of the IRGC militia leaders was killed in Karrada [in Baghdad], after that there was immediately a demonstration and increased escalations. Suddenly gunmen came and we got messages and we were with one who is close to the intelligence services and is a very close friend and he said be careful tonight. Because this friend said they are thinking about you and "you are on the list. I will warn you that they are coming for you." Last night there was a lot of elements of KH with masks reinforcing the security forces and using motorbikes, my friends were injured, killed and threatened and they told them to be careful.
Note: An investigation by the Iraqi Interior Ministry claimed that members of the security forces had shot demonstrators during the week of July 24. The UN Special Representative Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert condemned the killing of the demonstrators, leading to warnings against her by Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba.
Hisham al-Hashimi was killed on July 6. What affect has this had?
He was working on this report and he had mentioned being threatened. They knew he was a patriot. There were threatening messages on Twitter. The friends of him released a message that he had been in contact with Kataib Hezbollah. His friend had told him KH might kill him. People have become more fearful. No one has taken credit for the killing but it shows they [militias] can do what they want, they dominate the government and they have become like a state inside a state. People are scared inside the protests. People feel they must sacrifice and they understand you must face these militias with a gun. The mentality of the militia is only the gun. That’s the power they use, to kill and threat and to take money. People have lost hope. We have seen the guns used against the protesters. They feel they lost the revolution, and most tents in Tahrir have been damaged. Even as I speak to you from one tent, we have KH members nearby and they say that if you ever contact these militias, be wary. They are mixed in with demonstrations and government and working against US forces. People feel they have too much power and people are going to Erbil or Turkey.
Last week I was in a meeting with coordinators that was totally secret, the next morning by the morning one of those who was there had been kidnapped by Saraya Khorosani. KH had learned information about it. KH threatens people but has not tried to totally end the demonstrations.
Let’s talk about the kidnapping of Mewis, how has it affected foreigners and others?
So the kidnapping of Hella, she was working on this issue, she was working with a local. He was an artist and she was a teacher. So they were always for many years working together. She was painting and organizing events and spreading a message of peace and love. This was a message. There was no conspiracy [i.e she was not involved in a conspiracy]. Despite the claims of KH that she was some kind of agent. So those who were working together we knew her and we faced the same thing.
Those of us who are involved in this activism, we face more and more hurdles in every region. We have a small number of foreigners here. They are usually not active. There is no such story to cover: Only the Covid-19 and the bombardments of bases, including those of PMU and Coalition. We have some correspondents here. The airport is closed so no one can go back.
They are scared. There was a French girl here who was a journalist here a month ago and she was friends with a fixer and activist here. According to him she was threatened with kidnapping. She was told to leave Tahrir and the demonstrations. This is what happens if you take part in any activities. Those who came here were directly threatened and they cannot stay overnight for instance. At the same time the young people who might be from France or Germany or other foreign states, every tent they visited were targeted and they were told “your life is short.”
Are things getting worse? In the next months there are concerns that there will be attacks with forces and militias. This information we have heard. Whoever was in touch with NGOs or organizations or contacts with translators or agencies or embassies, or foreign channels from western countries and they will be targeted, threatened and kidnapped and killed. They blame KH and Asaib and Saraya. Also Nujaba. Also there are men in Federal Police uniforms who are not Federal Police. They may intervene in Tahrir square using motorcycles. This kind of activity is KH and Asaib.
What about Prime Minister Kadhimi, he was supposed to be better for the protesters?
If he releases the information he will be destroyed. He has time to win the loyalty but not explode the situation. He has said he will release files and names. Why did he stop? I want to know what happened. He is trying to be smart about this. Who killed Hashimi and who kidnapped Mewis. Ali Agha (علي آغايي) of the IRGC was also here to give advice on opposing US forces. The US forces recently withdrew from Basmaya. Near Sakhlawiya there is a large base. Agha came to give advise of the “international resistance” of KH and Asaib to make “revenge” for Soleimani. The question is who is behind who is killing him in Karrada. It is sensitive area. Why here in Baghdad? Who killed him in Karrada? Did they sacrifice him to create an embarrassment? It could be the US or Mossad, people here say.