(Baghdad) - Iraq should revise its draft law on freedom of expression and assembly to remove provisions that restrict those freedoms, Human Rights Watch said today. The draft law would allow authorities to curtail rights to protect the "public interest" or for the "general order or public morals," without limiting or defining what those terms encompass.
Human Rights Watch has obtained a copy of the draft law. Those provisions, as well as the proposed criminalization of speech that "insults" a "sacred" symbol or person, clearly violate international law, Human Rights Watch said. The government is pushing for this legislation in a period when physical attacks on peaceful demonstrators and restrictions on journalists have been increasing.
"This law will undermine Iraqis' right to demonstrate and express themselves freely," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Rather than creating restrictive laws, the government needs to stop attacks on critics by security forces and their proxies."
The Council of Ministers said in a statement dated May 16, 2011, that it had approved the "Law on the Freedom of Expression of Opinion, Assembly, and Peaceful Demonstration," in May and submitted it to the Council of Representatives for parliamentary approval. Human Rights Watch spoke with several members of parliament about the draft law who said it had not yet been circulated or introduced. Human Rights Watch called on parliament not to approve the law without revising it to remove the restrictions on rights.
The legislation would explicitly recognize the right of Iraqis to "demonstrate peacefully to express their opinions or demand their rights" (article 10), but other provisions would curtail those rights.
Under article 7(1), protest organizers would be required to get permission to hold a demonstration at least five days in advance. The request would have to include the "subject and purpose" of the demonstration and the names of its organizing committee. The draft law fails to state what standards Iraqi authorities would apply in approving or denying demonstration permits, effectively granting the government unfettered power to determine who may hold a demonstration, Human Rights Watch said.
Article 12 would permit authorities to restrict freedom of assembly and expression to protect "the public interest" or in the interest of "general order or public morals" without any qualification. The draft law offers no meaningful guidance in how to interpret such broad restrictions and is silent on what penalties protest organizers and demonstrators would face if they gathered without government approval.
The law as currently drafted would undermine guarantees in the Iraqi constitution of "freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration" as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iraq is a state party. The covenant makes clear that restrictions on peaceful demonstrations should be exceptional, and narrowly permitted, only if found to be "necessary in a democratic society" to safeguard "national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others." The draft Iraqi law includes some of these restrictions without any of the qualifications.
By granting overly broad approval authority to government agents and allowing them to restrict the right to freedom of assembly under vague concerns for "public morals" and "public interest," and by not limiting those restrictions to those "necessary in a democratic society," the draft law fails to meet the narrow criteria international law allows for limits on the right to assembly, Human Rights Watch said.
Protest organizers in Iraq operate in an extraordinarily unsafe environment. In recent weeks, Iraqi authorities have detained, interrogated, and beaten several protest organizers in Baghdad. That makes the proposed requirement for organizers to submit their names when requesting approval for a demonstration a significant threat to their personal security.
Protest organizers who wish to stay anonymous should be allowed to do so, Human Rights Watch said. At the very least, the government should ensure that the names of applicants would be classified and restricted to the permit office. The law should be modified to revise this requirement.
"How can the authorities expect organizers to come forward when security forces are not only failing to protect them from violence but in some cases targeting them directly," Stork said.
The law also contains provisions that would criminalize speech, with penalties of up to 10 years in prison. Under article 13, anyone who "attacks a belief of any religious sect or shows contempt for its rites" or publicly insults a "symbol, or person who is held sacred, exalted, or venerated by a religious sect" would face up to one year in jail and fines of up to 10 million dinars (US$8,665.52).The law provides no guidance about what might constitute an unlawful insult.
Iraq's constitution guarantees freedom of speech, and the ICCPR holds that "everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression ... to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds." International standards only allow content-based restrictions in extremely narrow circumstances, such as cases of slander or libel against private individuals or speech that threatens national security. Restrictions must be clearly defined, specific, necessary, and proportionate to the threat to interest protected.
Iraqi authorities have taken several steps in recent months to keep protests in Baghdad from public view. On April 13, officials issued new regulations barring street protests and allowing protests only in three soccer stadiums, though the regulation has not been enforced.
On February 21, Iraqi police allowed dozens of assailants, some wielding knives and clubs, to beat and stab peaceful protesters in Baghdad. During nationwide February 25 protests, security forces killed at least 12 protesters across the country and injured more than 100. On that day, Human Rights Watch observed Baghdad security forces beating unarmed journalists and protesters, smashing cameras, and confiscating memory cards.
On June 10, government-backed thugs armed with wooden planks, knives, iron pipes, and other weapons, beat and stabbed peaceful protesters and sexually molested female demonstrators in Baghdad. Human Rights Watch observed and witnesses said that security forces stood by and watched in several instances.