Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council has issued arrest warrants for two prominent Iraqi political analysts, prompting backlash from activists and some politicians who say it’s an attempt to intimidate critics of the government.
Political analysts Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie and Yahya al-Kubaisi were respectively accused of publicly “insulting” and “defaming” public authorities, according to copies of the warrants obtained by CNN and the media office of the Supreme Judicial Council.
The warrants were issued on March 16 and are based on a 1969 penal code which has been previously criticized by human rights groups for impinging on freedom of speech.
Al-Sumaidaie was subsequently arrested by Iraqi security forces at his home in Baghdad late Friday, according to a statement released by Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council on Saturday.
He is well-known for his criticism of the current government. According to the judicial council statement, the warrant against al-Sumaidaie was issued by Baghdad’s Al-Karkh Investigation Court under Penal Code Article 226 for insulting “official institutions” by using “bad phrases” which “go beyond the limits of the freedom of expression.” He could face up to seven years in jail, according to Iraqi law.
The Iraq-based media watchdog Journalistic Freedoms Observatory said Al-Sumaidaie has obtained a lawyer but CNN was unable to reach him despite multiple attempts.
Al-Kubaisi is also known for his criticism of the Iraqi government and key political parties in power. The warrant for his arrest cites article 433 of the penal code which deals with the charge of defamation of an individual or entity. The media office of the Supreme Judicial Council did not elaborate on the charge of defamation to CNN. He has not been detained, as he lives outside of the country.
“I was expecting the arrest warrant for me,” al-Kubaisi told CNN, adding that he believed it was related to articles he had published that were critical of Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court.
“The arrest warrant is not a personal issue against me, rather than to oppress those who have opinions. This arrest warrant is a clear threat for those who criticize the regime, the government and political parties. It’s a signal to them that an arrest warrant can be issued immediately against them,” he added.
The arrest warrants sparked controversy among activists and some politicians.
The independent Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights expressed “grave concern” and “deep regret,” and described the warrants as lacking “regard for the humanitarian and legal guarantees in a procedure that is a flagrant violation of human rights,” Ali al-Bayati, a spokesperson and member of the Commission, told CNN on Sunday, while also calling for al-Sumaidaie’s immediate release.
“Iraq is still considered a dangerous place for those who express their opinions,” al-Bayati also said.
Lawmaker Mohammed al-Sudani also expressed his regrets, saying that penalizing the expression of critical opinion is a “very dangerous matter.” “This is taking place at a time when murderers, criminals, and corrupt Individuals enjoy their full freedoms,” al-Sudani tweeted Saturday.
Last year, the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for the Iraqi government to reform its penal code in a report that stated: “Iraq’s Penal Code, which dates back to 1969, includes numerous defamation ‘crimes’ such as ‘insult[ing] the Arab community’ or any government official, regardless of whether the statement is true.”
“Although few people serve prison time for defamation, the criminal process itself acts as a punishment. Reporting on abuses by the security forces or about corruption is especially risky,” the organization wrote in the June 2020 report.
Al-Sumaidaie’s final tweet prior to his arrest had marked the anniversary of the start of the US-led invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.
“The United States and its allies launched the war on Iraq to disarm weapons of mass destruction and bring down the dictatorial regime that threatened world peace, and to build democracy,” he wrote Friday, the same day he was arrested.
“The result is no weapons of mass destruction nor democracy, nor has Iraq become more secure and peaceful for the world and its citizens. Who is responsible?” he added.
CNN’s Aqeel Najim in Baghdad contributed to this report.