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Iraq: Activist Imprisoned for Peaceful Criticism of Security Forces

Alarming Escalation of Legal Threats against Civil Society

Hayder Finjan al-Zaidi. © 2022 Private

(Beirut, December 6, 2022) – A criminal court in Baghdad sentenced an activist to three years in prison on December 5, 2022, for alleged criticism of the deceased former head of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, or al-hashd al-shaabi), Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, Human Rights Watch said today.

On June 6, the authorities detained the activist, Hayder Finjan al-Zaidi, 20, based on a Twitter post he allegedly made but released him on bail after 16 days. He and his father Hamid, 66, deny that he posted the criticism, insisting that his Twitter account was hacked. The authorities should immediately release al-Zaidi, halt all prosecutions that infringe on defendants’ basic rights and scrap the law that criminalizes criticizing public officials.

“Regardless of who posted the Twitter message, the Iraqi justice system should not be used as a tool to suppress peaceful criticism of the authorities or armed actors,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It is a sad reflection on the rule of law in Iraq that an activist like al-Zaidi gets three years in prison for a Twitter post he says he didn’t write while dozens of officials and armed groups enjoy impunity for killing activists and protesters.”

The Twitter post in question referred to al-Muhandis as a “spy,” in contrast to the label of “martyr” as PMF-aligned actors refer to him. Al-Muhandis was assassinated on January 3, 2021, in a US drone strike. The strike also killed Qassim Suleimani, the then-head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The PMF is a collection of armed groups nominally under the control of Iraq’s prime minister as head of the armed forces, though many of these groups maintain close relationships with Iranian authorities.

“This sentence is a clear message to activists that any criticism of authorities and the PMF will be punished,” Salman Khairallah, an Iraqi human rights activist, told Human Rights Watch.

The court sentenced Hayder under article 226 of Iraq’s penal code, which prohibits “publicly insulting” the national assembly, armed forces, or any other government agency with a sentence not exceeding seven years in prison. Activists in Baghdad told Human Rights Watch that the PMF were responsible for Hayder’s arrest and that a committee within the PMF filed the legal complaint against Hayder. The sentencing decision states that the PMF is also entitled to financial compensation from Hayder.

“I went to the court with Hayder today, but they didn’t allow me to enter,” his father told Human Rights Watch. “His lawyer went with him, and we were hoping he would be released because Hayder didn’t post anything.” Hamid was shocked to learn his son would have to serve years in prison.

“The one who stole $2.5 billion was released on bail,” he said, comparing his son’s case to a recent and stunning case of rampant corruption in Iraq. “Meanwhile my son was sentenced to three years in prison for a Twitter post he didn’t even write.”

“Al-Zaidi should not spend another second in jail following his patently unfair trial,” Coogle said. “The authorities should be focused on addressing the many challenges facing the country rather than persecuting activists.”

Correction

Update: This news release was updated to accurately reflect the name of the person referred to in the Twitter post.

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