Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Is Silencing Human Rights Advocates

Mustafa al-Kadhimi promised reform and freedom of expression. Now he’s using archaic laws to stifle free speech.

By , a journalist based in Baghdad.
Iraqi demonstrators lift banners against Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi during a protest rejecting election results, near an entrance to the Green Zone in Baghdad on Nov. 5, 2021.
Iraqi demonstrators lift banners against Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi during a protest rejecting election results, near an entrance to the Green Zone in Baghdad on Nov. 5, 2021.
Iraqi demonstrators lift banners against Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi during a protest rejecting election results, near an entrance to the Green Zone in Baghdad on Nov. 5, 2021. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

BAGHDAD—Ali al-Bayati had grown accustomed to intimidation. During his four-year tenure as a member of Iraq’s High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR), he became one of the country’s most outspoken human rights defenders and was often quoted in international media when the government’s violent crackdown against mass demonstrations briefly garnered the world’s attention in 2019.

As a result of his work, Bayati often received veiled threats, presumably from the entities he accused of human rights abuses. The 43-year-old father of three took precautions but refused to be silenced—until the government itself filed a lawsuit against him in February, charging him with defamation under archaic Baath-era laws.

“I have decided to leave the country,” Bayati said in a wide-ranging interview with Foreign Policy. “I’m not ready to put my kids in a position to see me being arrested in front of them.”

BAGHDAD—Ali al-Bayati had grown accustomed to intimidation. During his four-year tenure as a member of Iraq’s High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR), he became one of the country’s most outspoken human rights defenders and was often quoted in international media when the government’s violent crackdown against mass demonstrations briefly garnered the world’s attention in 2019.

As a result of his work, Bayati often received veiled threats, presumably from the entities he accused of human rights abuses. The 43-year-old father of three took precautions but refused to be silenced—until the government itself filed a lawsuit against him in February, charging him with defamation under archaic Baath-era laws.

“I have decided to leave the country,” Bayati said in a wide-ranging interview with Foreign Policy. “I’m not ready to put my kids in a position to see me being arrested in front of them.”

Bayati was charged under Article 434, one of a dozen defamation provisions in Iraq’s 1969 penal code designed to protect the old regime by criminalizing the insult of public institutions, national emblems, civil servants, and individuals. According to court documents seen by Foreign Policy, the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers accused Bayati of defamation during televised comments he made 14 months earlier, in December 2020.

In the TV interview, Bayati had voiced concerns over allegations that detainees arrested by a special body set up by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to investigate corruption and high-profile killings had been tortured. Bayati stated that the IHCHR, an official body mandated by Iraq’s parliament to monitor human rights in the country, had been denied access to investigate the torture claims. As a commissioner, Bayati should have enjoyed immunity from prosecution, but he still had to endure interrogation by an investigative judge. If convicted, Bayati could face imprisonment and a fine.

“We worked with many prime ministers, but for me as a person and in dealing with the commission, Kadhimi’s style has been the worst,” said Bayati, who left Iraq earlier this week.


Bayati’s is one of a series of high-profile cases in what appears to be a systematic attempt by the current government to stifle freedom of speech, a surprising track record for a prime minister who rose to power promising to improve human rights. A former journalist and spy chief, Kadhimi took office in 2020 after mass demonstrations called for sweeping reforms and forced his predecessor, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, to step down.

Kadhimi’s appointment was greeted with delight in Western capitals. He vowed to meet protesters’ demands for better governance and to deliver justice for more than 600 protesters killed with impunity on Abdul-Mahdi’s watch. “The government pledges to protect freedom of expression and the protection of peaceful protesters and their squares and … to pursue all those involved in spilling Iraqi blood,” Kadhimi said in a speech to parliament just before he was sworn into office on May 7, 2020.

Two years into his term, Kadhimi’s government appears to have taken an increasingly intolerant stance toward dissent.

But two years into his term, Kadhimi’s promises ring hollow. Instead, his government appears to have taken an increasingly intolerant stance toward dissent, pressing charges against critics using outdated defamation provisions that rights organizations say undermine freedom of speech.

In addition to Bayati’s case, lawsuits have been filed against political commentators Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie and Yahya al-Kubaisi; the head of the Iraqi artists union, Jabbar Joudi; and most recently Ahmad Mulla Talal, a prominent journalist who briefly served as Kadhimi’s spokesperson and has since become a vocal critic of his government.

Bayati and others with knowledge of the matter believe there are many more, less publicized cases. One former government employee, who was threatened with legal action for criticizing the prime minister’s track record on social media, was told that over 60 lawsuits had been filed by Kadhimi’s office using Baath-era defamation articles. “That a former journalist and supposed human rights activist is using a law written and utilized by Iraq’s most lethal governing party is deeply concerning,” said the former employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

“The prime minister came to power on the back of the protest movement. This was an opportunity to finally hold those responsible for those abuses to account,” said Omar Sirri, the Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch. “What should have been a momentous rupture instead became yet another instance of continuity.”

Reached for comment, a spokesperson for Kadhimi denied that the government was targeting individuals for “legitimate” expression of their opinions. “However, when individual officials are targeted with personal defamation, character assassination, or any false accusations, it is their prerogative to take the perpetrators to court. It is up to the Iraqi independent judiciary to decide such cases on their merit,” the spokesperson, Hassan Nadhem, said.

Judicial harassment isn’t a new phenomenon in Iraq. Across its provinces, ordinary citizens have for years been slammed with lawsuits under the same Baath-era laws for taking to social media to call out local politicians over corruption and the increasingly deplorable state of basic services.

Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gained notoriety for arbitrary arrests and the excessive use of harsh anti-terrorism laws. Parliament speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, who was reelected for a second term in January, has been accused of systematically using the courts to go after his Sunni rivals and quell opposition in his home province of Anbar. “Previously, we used to be able to talk about issues in Anbar, but since Halbousi rose to power, the legal cases have increased day by day,” said one of three people who told Foreign Policy they’ve faced legal action by the speaker. The source requested anonymity for fear of further retaliation.

What is notable in Kadhimi’s crackdown on free speech is that it stands in stark contrast to the reputation he has tried to cultivate.

What is notable in Kadhimi’s crackdown on free speech, however, is that it stands in stark contrast to the reputation he has tried to cultivate. “Kadhimi said things that other prime ministers wouldn’t have said,” said one Western official, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “He gave the impression that this is someone we can see eye to eye with.”

Kadhimi’s own background as a journalist, and the appointment of several other media personalities as close advisors, instilled hope that basic freedoms would be respected. He also earned the West’s approval for taking a confrontational stance toward Iran-aligned paramilitary groups. During Kadhimi’s visit to Washington in July 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden referred to him as a “good friend,” while a senior administration official described Kadhimi as a pragmatist and problem-solver rather than someone who “tries to use problems for his own political interests.”

But the view from Iraq has been markedly different. “It’s power in the Middle East. Once you get the power, you try to stop the critics by all means,” said Sumaidaie, a political commentator who initially supported Kadhimi’s rise to power. Sumaidaie was arrested at his home last March after—according to his version of events—he fell out with the prime minister and one of his close advisors.

Foreign Policy reviewed a copy of the arrest warrants for Sumaidaie and Kubaisi, which were issued the same day under Article 226 of the penal code, which forbids insulting a public institution or official. “The law is exploited to prevent any criticism directed at the authority,” said Kubaisi when reached via WhatsApp abroad, where he has spent much of his time since the lawsuit was filed. The warrants don’t mention the entity pressing charges, but Kubaisi, who thinks he was targeted for criticizing the politicization of the judiciary, holds Halbousi as well as the head of the judiciary responsible. “This is exactly what the political actors allied with the judiciary want—to produce a repressive climate that prohibits criticism of them, no matter their actions,” he said.

The judiciary has denied such accusations. “There is a legal text, and we are implementing this legal text. We distance ourselves from political issues,” said Mohammed Salman, the head of the court where Sumaidaie was investigated. He added that the judiciary has exercised leniency with regard to the defamation articles, convicting only a small number of those indicted.

There are other signs that freedoms have regressed since Kadhimi took office. The government has begun imposing minders on foreign journalists who apply for permission to report outside the capital. In Reporters Without Borders’ recently issued 2022 World Press Freedom Index, Iraq slid in the ranking from 163 to 172 out of 180 countries, in part because of the recent crackdown on journalists in Iraq’s northern, semi-autonomous Kurdish region. In a report issued on World Press Freedom Day, the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights noted a rise in “the influence of parties with an interest in stifling freedom of expression and eroding the space for journalistic activity in Iraq” over the past year.

In the most recent case that drew public attention, the government filed a defamation lawsuit against celebrity journalist Ahmad Mulla Talal and ordered his prime-time TV talk show off the air. Mulla Talal was accused of disrespecting the army after he hosted an actor who posed as a corrupt army general. Mulla Talal declined to comment, but two people familiar with the fallout told Foreign Policy that the prime minister’s office pressured the relevant authorities to take legal action. The reason was not just Mulla Talal’s show but preexisting political tensions with the channel’s owner and another satirical program that aired on the same channel that mocked the prime minister himself.

Bayati is disappointed that Western governments, with which he collaborated closely as a commissioner, have not been more vocal in his defense. “I realized that most foreign missions in Iraq were proud of this prime minister. When I was telling them realities about human rights violations, they were not accepting it,” he said. In early April, the European Union and Canada sent a private letter to the government demanding the case be dropped, but there has been no official answer. A spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad wouldn’t comment on Bayati’s case but said “the United States remains committed to supporting freedom of expression.”

In the meantime, Bayati has endured more harassment. In late April, security forces showed up at his home while he was out, claiming to possess another warrant. Bayati lives in permanent fear, neither able to continue his work as a commissioner nor return to his previous job as a neurologist. The small clinic he opened this year stood empty when I visited. “I’m not attending the clinic because of security concerns. I lost the will to practice,” he said, a look of resignation cast over his face. “Even if I’m not prosecuted, I’m punished in another way.”

Simona Foltyn is a journalist based in Baghdad. Twitter: @SimonaFoltyn

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