Legally silencing dissent in Iraq

August 14, 2016
A file picture of Iraqi security forces standing guard outside the parliament in Baghdad.

LONDON - The Iraqi parliament recently passed a law banning the Ba’ath Party of former president Saddam Hussein and made it a criminal offence for any political party or organisation to “promote racism, terrorism, takfirism, sectarianism or sectarian cleansing”.
This far-reaching law is the latest in a long line of efforts that started with the 2003 de-Ba’athification process imposed by the United States and continued by Iraqi politicians to silence dissent and infringe upon the rights of communities — specifically Iraq’s Sunni Arabs — viewed as recalcitrant or even as “security risks”.
Under the Ba’athists, it was a simple economic fact of life that if people wanted to advance in their careers, they could rarely do so without first signing up as members of the Ba’ath Party. The deBa’athification law pushed the vast majority of these economic, rather than ideological, members of the Ba’ath Party out of their jobs and into financial uncertainty. This new law could potentially put them in prison for up to a decade.
While aspects of the law, such as criminalising the politics of sectarianism, hatred and terrorism, certainly seem praiseworthy at face value, it is highly unlikely that the law will be applied equally or fairly. As the successor of the aforementioned de-Ba’athification process — renowned for targeting and marginalising Sunnis — this latest law poses significant risks to freedom of thought and expression.
For instance, former prime minister and current head of the ruling Shia Dawa Party Nuri al-Maliki has become infamous for his brand of violent sectarian politics. In response to the year-long, largely Sunni protests against his discriminatory policies in 2013, Maliki described the protest camps as breeding grounds for terrorism and accused the demonstrators of being in league with al-Qaeda.
In April 2013, Iraqi security forces, acting under Maliki’s authority, stormed a protest camp in Hawija, massacring dozens of unarmed Sunnis. Activists leaked video footage of the aftermath of the bloody incident that showed Iraqi troops shouting sectarian slurs and insults and stomping on the face of a dead disabled man who had fallen out of his wheelchair.
In 2014, not long after violence broke out in earnest between the Sunni tribes and government forces, Maliki described the Sunnis who had taken up arms in self-defence against massacres such as Hawija as being from the “camp of Yazid”. This was in reference to the Umayyad caliph whose forces killed the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Hussein bin Ali, considered a saint by Shias.
Such open and clear sectarianism from senior government officials likely created the environment that led to al-Qaeda terrorists and their Islamic State (ISIS) successors to reestablish a foothold in Iraq. However, it is seemingly impossible that the new law will be used to bring Maliki to justice and this is especially so considering parliamentary blocs under his control were instrumental in passing the bill.
If applied fairly and justly, the legislation could technically be used to prosecute the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and many other politicians and militia leaders.
The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) have recently gained legal recognition as a new service in the Iraqi security forces and as a parallel organisation to the main army, not unlike the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in Iran.
The PMF has been responsible for numerous atrocities in Iraq, including in operations to recapture Falluja. These included the abduction of approximately 700 Sunni men from Saqlawiyah near Falluja who have yet to be found almost two months after the city was recaptured by the government.
Human Rights Watch reported in July that the Iraqi government was concealing details of investigations into the alleged abuses, which suggests that the government is not willing to acknowledge or properly tackle sectarianism within its own ranks.
If there was ever a clearer example of the differences between the terms “legal” and “legitimate”, this new law shows how legal means can be used to illegitimately subvert democracy. It is increasingly clear that neither Maliki nor organisations such as the PMF will be prosecuted under this law and this latest bill is perhaps only a legal instrument devised by Baghdad’s political elites to incarcerate dissidents.
For this law to be viewed as legitimate, Baghdad must demonstrate that it is willing and able to bring sectarian and violent politicians to justice. Otherwise, Iraqis will have no reason to believe that this law is anything but an attempt to marginalise and target political dissidents by branding them as Ba’athists or takfiris.