One demonstrator has been shot dead and dozens injured during violence at a rally in Baghdad where thousands gathered to demand accountability for the murder of prominent Iraqi activists and protesters.
What kicked off on Tuesday morning as a hopeful wave of demonstrations in Tahrir Square saw tensions brew throughout the day and violence between protesters and security forces erupt early evening.
Videos shared on social media showed tear gas, live fire and chaos reminiscent of October 2019 when the nationwide social uprising first began and several protesters were shot dead by security forces.
Since then, almost 600 demonstrators have been killed and 35 activists have died in 82 targeted killings, according to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR).
Tuesday’s protests were sparked by the killing on May 9 of civil activist Ehab Jawad al-Wazni near his home in Karbala and calls by his family for demonstrators to demand an end to impunity.
The perpetrators have yet to be identified but activists and demonstrators point the finger at Iraq’s rogue Iran-backed militias, whose presence demonstrators have called out.
Ali al-Bayati of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights said security forces must also be held accountable.
“Through these means only can we reach the real criminals and end the ongoing impunity,” said al-Bayati, adding that Tuesday’s protests were against “what is going on in the streets against the activists, including the continuous assassinations, which are part of the systematic violence”.
The protesters were united under the unofficial slogan of “Who killed me?”, and armed with flags and banners bearing the faces of the dead.
“This is a response to a call of Ehab al-Wazni’s family … and to object against a political system that is not truly democratic but pretends to be,” said 27-year-old Laith Hussein of the Baghdad Student Union.
“We want to get rid of the parties in power, [we want] real freedom, true democracy and to make radical changes to this system,” added Hussein.
Amid the throng of dishevelled youths, some older men and women also took to the streets in a show of support.
“My son has no future, my country has no future,” said 68-year-old Abu Marwan. “I’m old, my life is over, but I want a future for this generation.”
The ongoing killings and attacks on activists and journalists have sparked calls to boycott October’s parliamentary elections.
Many protesters said they will not vote, disillusioned by a system that has failed to protect them.
“The boycott is a peaceful way to say that as long as there are armed militias connected to the [political] parties and who kill the opposition, we cannot say it’s a legitimate process,” said 34-year-old protester Deena al-Tai.
“As long as armed groups have power, we won’t participate.”
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report also warned that the ongoing impunity would likely prevent Iraqis from voting in the upcoming elections.
“If the authorities are not able to take urgent steps to stop these extrajudicial killings, the palpable climate of fear they have created will severely limit the ability of Iraqis who have been calling for change to participate in upcoming parliamentary elections,” wrote HRW’s senior researcher Belkis Wille.
Despite the ongoing targeted killings and the exodus of activists to the safer Kurdish-controlled north, the protest movement has not waned, said Munqith Dagher, a senior non-resident researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
“The soul of the movement is still there and it is developing and the attack by the system to stop it and demonise it has failed,” Dagher told Al Jazeera.
Following the violence on Tuesday evening, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq said in a tweet: “Only accountability will stop the pattern of deadly attacks targeting civic and political activists. While the perpetrators may think they have silenced voices, they have only amplified them. Accountability is key for Iraq’s stability. The Iraqi people have a right to know”.