Iraqi authorities using deadly, military-grade tear gas grenades on protesters: Amnesty
'These have resulted in terrible, gruesome images and wounds and, of course, death afterwards'
Amnesty International says Iraqi security forces are deploying deadly, military-grade tear gas grenades at close range against protesters.
Tens of thousands marched in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on Friday, demanding sweeping changes to the political system established after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, which they blame for widespread corruption, high unemployment and poor public services.
At least 255 protesters have been killed since the protests began a month ago, and Amnesty is blaming some of those deaths on the large tear gas grenades that protesters are calling "smokers."
Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director at Amnesty International, spoke to As It Happens guest host Megan Williams. Here is part of their conversation.
Tear gas is a common tool for crowd dispersal, but these canisters you've been looking at are different. How different are they?
This is the first time we actually see these types of canisters. They're very different.
Can you tell me what kind of damage they do? I mean, they look like regular tear gas canisters, correct?
They sort of look like regular tear gas canisters except that they're 10 times heavier than the regular canisters.
If they're being fired at point-blank range into crowds of protesters with 10 times the weight of a regular canister, you can imagine the impact that it's having, and the difference in the impact that is happening.
Our military experts have told us that these types of canisters are usually used in military operations, certainly not in the context to disperse crowds of protesters.
I know this is a graphic question to ask, but how exactly do they work once they're deployed? How are they harming people?
From the footage that we received and verified, and the medical scans also that we saw, what we've seen is these canisters just are ... found lodged in the skulls off of the victims.
And these have resulted in terrible, gruesome images and wounds and, of course, death afterwards. They're found embedded in the skulls as-are, so they don't fragment on impact.
And are they being fired at close range?
They are being fired at close range from the multiple testimonies that we've collected. They're also being fired directly into the crowds of protesters.
Tear gas canisters are supposed to be non-lethal weapons, except that in this case, the way they're being used is lethal.
How does the damage or the impact compare, say, to rubber bullets that are also used sometimes at close range?
It's a different type of impact on the body.
We've documented at least five protesters being killed in as many days since these types of canisters started surfacing.
The protesters on the ground, what they've been telling us is that it's unlike anything they've seen before. They call them "smokers" by the way. Not even tear gas.
How were you able to confirm that they were being deployed?
We have been documenting and monitoring the protests from the very outset.
So the protests broke out early October ... and in the course of this month, there have been a number of violations that we have identified on behalf of the security forces — the excessive use of force, including the use of live ammunition being fired into the crowds, including arbitrary arrests and other means to create fear, a climate of repression and harassment of activists.
We have identified also the fact that there have been snipers shooting into the crowds, snipers who were located in positions behind the lines of security forces.
And in the course of our documentation — which involves, you know, speaking to people on ground on a daily basis — a number of people we've spoken to raised our attention to these new types of canisters.
We received footage, including the one that's been widely circulating on social media, and then we started our work of verifying the information by speaking to medical experts and weapons analysis experts.
And what evidence do you have that directly links this to the Iraqi security forces?
From the video footage, it is clear that these are being launched by the security forces.
And have they responded to these allegations?
No. We put out our press release this morning. We haven't received any response by the Iraqi authorities to date.
What Iraqi authorities did put out earlier in the month was an announcement ... that they would open an investigation to try and establish the facts into the killing of protesters.
The issue with the Iraqi authorities is that they have repeatedly stated in the past on numerous occasions in different contexts that they would be launching investigations. Unfortunately, none of these investigations has ever gotten beyond the stage of just an announcement.
How have you seen these protests and the demands of protesters evolve since they began a month ago?
The protests were fuelled namely by the youth, and specifically on the issue of unemployment.
Now let's bear in mind also that the Iraqi people have suffered from years and years of just cycles of violence. So the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and then going through different phases with the U.S. invasion and then more recently the military operation to oust the Islamic State, or Daesh, which caused great havoc on the people themselves. I mean, they are the first ones to bear the brunt of any conduct of any armed hostility.
And in this context there is, of course, very serious economic and social issues today. Iraq is also dealing with over a million and a half displaced people who face serious challenges in returning to their places of origins.
There is a clear lack of trust in the authorities who are being perceived and accused of widespread corruption, and because of that corruption, that is being given as one of the root causes of the failure of the authorities to be providing basic services.
We have seen small signs of authorities responding to these protests. In a speech, Iraq's president promised early elections. He said that there would be a new election law that would allow young people to participate, and said the prime minister would be stepping down. How do you square these announcements with the knowledge that these horrific weapons are being used against protesters?
The answer is really in your question. It's very difficult to believe any kinds of promises that are made when what we see is a clear use of excessive use of violence against the protesters. It's just not compatible when we see the level of violence being directed at the protesters, these new types of canisters being used.
People on the ground are telling us that arbitrary arrests are still taking place. Security forces are going down to hospitals to interrogate people who are wounded during the protests.
So there is a real disconnect between the facts on the ground and ... the promises made by the authorities.
Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.