Iraq jails anti-corruption activist ahead of investment conference

Activist sentenced to six years in jail for defaming state institutions.
Friday 09/02/2018
Iraqi security forces standing guard in Baghdad's Tahrir Square, on February 9. (AFP)
Iraqi security forces standing guard in Baghdad's Tahrir Square, on February 9. (AFP)

LONDON - An Iraqi court has sentenced an anti-corruption activist to six years in jail for defamation of state institutions, a few days before a conference that aims to encourage investment in Iraq is set to be held in neighbouring Kuwait. 

Over the past two years Bassem Khashan, an Iraqi-US dual national, had tracked down 350 cases of corruption by local officials in the southern province of Muthana and alerted authorities, said Majid Abu Kalal of the Dhar NGO.

Khashan provided what he said was proof and won several cases, including one against the former director general of the health ministry in the province, Abu Kalal said.

But on February 7 a court in Muthana accused him of defaming the commission of public integrity and the provincial council after he criticised what he called their lack of effort in fighting graft.

He was sentenced to two jail terms of three years each after writing on Facebook that these two bodies were “slowly cooking,” Abu Kalal said. Khashan can appeal.

The expression “slowly cooking” initially baffled the court which asked a linguistics expert from Muthana University to explain it.

The expert deemed it an insult that meant the commission and council had done nothing to stop corruption.

That explanation served as the basis of the court convicting Khashan of defamation, Abu Kalal said.

Khashan, who heads the group Ayoun al-Qanoun (“Eyes on the Law” in Arabic), mocked the verdict in a sarcastic Facebook post “thanking” the head of the commission of public integrity.

“Thanks to Hassan al-Yassiri and his commission for granting immunity to corrupt people who have stolen state monies and for requesting my imprisonment and a fine for defaming him,” he said.

He also “thanked” Muthana University and its linguistics expert.

The verdict sparked uproar, with hundreds of people protesting in support of Khashan on February 9 in Samawa, Muthana's provincial capital, and online.

Protesters chanted: “Honest people go to jail while the corrupt ones live in the Green Zone” in Baghdad where Iraq's main institutions are based.

One social network user, Anas al-Falluji, wrote: “Bassem... who helped return billions of stolen dinars to state coffers has been rewarded by being jailed for six years.”

The head of the Muthana bar association, Saleh Absawi, told AFP that lawyers were mobilising to defend Khashan in his appeal.

A team of 40 lawyers is joining forces with 30 civil society organisations to represent him, he added.

The sentence came as Iraq – which is ranked the tenth most corrupt country in the world – stepped up its efforts to reassure investors that the country is fighting corruption and open for transparent business. 

Iraq seeks around $100 billion in foreign investment in transport, energy and agriculture as part of a plan to rebuild parts of the country and revive the economy after a three-year war on the Islamic State.

The government's National Investment Commission published a list of 157 projects it will seek investment for at an International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq to be hosted by Kuwait February 12 to 14.

Some of these projects are about rebuilding destroyed facilities like Mosul's airport, while others are new investments to strengthen and diversify the economy away from oil, said an economic advisor to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

“All together, they cost about $100 billion,” the advisor, Mudhar Saleh, told Reuters. Sixteen projects carry a price tag of $500 million or more, according to the list.

Rebuilding homes, hospitals, schools, roads, businesses and telecommunications is key to providing jobs to the young, to end the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and put an end to several decades of political and sectarian violence.

The United States government will not contribute funds at the conference but will instead encourage investment from the private sector and Gulf Arab allies, US and Western officials said.

A US official in Baghdad said 100 American companies were participating in the conference.

Three rail projects top the list: a 500 kilometer (311 mile) line from Baghdad to Basra in the south estimated to cost $13.7 billion, a line from Baghdad to Mosul in the north estimated at $8.65 billion and an $8 billion metro for the capital.

Iraq reopened to foreign investment in 2003 after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, but the vast majority of the billions invested went to increasing its oil and gas production.

It has become the second-largest crude exporter of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, after Saudi Arabia, with a daily output of 4.4 million barrels.

At the conference, Iraq will seek investment in the downstream oil industry including in storage tanks, refineries and petrochemical plants to process its crude into plastics and fertilizers.

Saleh said investments in the oil industry and agriculture will probably be easier to attract than other sectors given the country's vast crude reserves, available land and water wealth.

Total land offered for investments to grow “strategic crops” is nearly 1,500 square kilometres (580 square miles). Iraq, one of the world's largest wheat importers, aims to achieve self-sufficiency and possibly become a net exporter of the grain.

“We feel there will be support for Iraq, from the Americans, the Europeans, the Arab countries, the United Nations, and humanitarian organisations,” said Saleh. 

(With reporting from news agencies)