From Parliament to Jail: vaguely defined laws as a tool to suppress freedoms in Iraq 

Alfadhel Ahmed

02 May 2024

Karkh misdemeanor court issued a ruling to imprison Hadi Al-Salami, a member of parliament from Najaf, for six months using the Article 331 of Iraq’s Penal Code. This followed a lawsuit filed by the Ministry of Trade against him.

Despite the fact that all members of parliament (MP) possess immunity preventing their arrest or the initiation of legal proceedings against them during their tenure, the interpretation of the Supreme Federal Court No. 90 of 2021 ruled that it is possible to arrest any MP for charges are misdemeanors, which include imprisonment for less than five years. 

The Federal Court’s interpretation was based on Article 63 of the Iraqi Constitution, which refers to parliamentary immunity only for charges that are “feloinies”, which includes imprisonment for more than five years, without any reference to misdemeanors. 

In practice, this interpretation allows for the pursuit of MPs in misdemeanor cases simply for criticizing ministers and officials, and ultimately forces them to stop performing their parliamentary duties. 

Several MPs, in previous public sessions of the council, raised this issue and spoke about cases where they were forced to appear before the courts as a result of their criticism of executive officials, but no practical steps to resolve the problem have been taken. 

Root of the problem 

The case of Hadi Al-Salami is part of a broader, systematic effort by the authorities to limit freedom of expression in Iraq. This is facilitated by the imprecision of Iraqi laws and their broad language, which allows for the arrest of anyone who criticizes the government’s performance or the conduct of its officials, or who contributes to exposing corruption. 

Al-Salami’s case is not very different from the cases of several activists and journalists who were arrested or had arrest warrants issued against them as a result of their critical opinions, the only difference being in the tools used. In cases like the activist Haider Al-Zaidi, the journalist Ahmad Mulla Talal, the writer Sarmad Al-Taie, or others, recourse is made to the provisions of Article 226 of the Penal Code, which allows for the arrest of individuals for up to 7 years for what the legal article describes as “insulting authorities.” In the case of MP, recourse is made to the articles related to misdemeanor crimes that can legally bypass parliamentary immunity. 

Despite the Ministry of Trade later dropping the lawsuit against Al-Salami—as has been done in most of these cases against various activists—these lawsuits are considered, from the moment of their initiation, a tool of repression through intimidating society with the consequences of criticizing authority. 

In all these cases, the fundamental right of citizens—including MPs—to speak their opinions is passed over. The truth is that this right is continuously undermined. 

Instead of engaging in the right of expressing an opinion, the public debate is diverted to “other” topics that stray from discussing the authenticity of individuals’ right to express their opinions. In Al-Salami’s case, the trial was based on Article 331 of the Penal Code, which in practice is related to depriving the right to criticism and speech. However, a wide network of media close to the authorities accused Al-Salami of forging government documents, as a way to justify repressive behavior, framing Al-Salami as a perpetrator of forgery, rather than portraying him as a victim of a repressive pattern aimed at preventing people from criticizing the authorities. 

 Moves to distract public opinion from matters of freedom have followed every arrest or legal restriction, to transform those affected from being victims of expressing their opinions into offenders deserving the arrest or restriction imposed on them. 

Before and after 

The presence of vague phrases in the Iraqi Penal Code, such as “insulting the authorities” in Article 226 and “violating public decency and morals” in Article 403, allows various state institutions to prosecute those who question or criticize them, ultimately silencing them through judicial means. 

Once the authorities drop legal actions against opponents, media campaigns are launched to glorify the same entities that initiated the lawsuits, linking them with qualities such as “forgiveness” and “tolerance” just because they have stopped violating freedoms… whereas some victims are forced to praise their jailers, as an additional form of oppression. 

Additionally, a stereotypical image of the opposition figures is created, portraying them as linked to foreign agendas and as agents of Western countries. Or as has recently been happening, accusing them of spreading homosexuality and   promoting the “concept of gender”, or “degrading content” and seeking to undermine societal principles and values and encouraging the dissolution of families. All of these accusations serve to strip opposition figures of their ethical and national symbolism, ultimately easing any assault and undermining social sympathy for their causes. These accusations share the characteristic of being elastic and based on undefined ethical concepts.  

In addition to making it not an issue of freedom of expression, the Al-Salami case has been given a sectarian character by portraying it as a personal problem between the Minister of Trade, who belongs to the Sunni sect, and a deputy from the Shia province of Najaf. 

By activating it in this way, sectarian tensions are exacerbated to serve the interests of the current political class, which typically invests in sectarian conflict and relies on it as a fundamental part of its discourse to mobilize voters, and also distracts society’s attention from the fact that the issue fundamentally relates to rights and freedoms. 

Future impacts  

With Al-Salami’s arrest, a new pattern of repression is being practiced, and it could evolve—unless opposed—to include the use of other legal articles such as 330 and 334-340 from the Penal Code, which are classified as misdemeanors, in addition to being crimes that breach honor, causing the MP to lose his membership if a judicial order is issued against him accordingly. 

In practice, parliamentary membership can be withdrawn from any MP accused of honor-breaching crimes, as happened with the former Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi. With the current campaign to undermine rights and freedoms, it is likely that other deputies will be targeted and this legal tool will be used for political blackmail and neutralizing opponents, rather than as a means to achieve justice. 

On the other hand, any parliamentary attempt to avert danger for the members of parliament cannot occur in isolation from stopping the oppression and restriction against other actors such as activists, civil society organizations, and various other segments of society. Rights and freedoms come as one package, and their segmentation or attempts to make them work for some groups or authorities and not others, will lead to more repression. The continued existence of red lines with buzzwords such as “insulting the authorities,” “gender,” and “misbehaved content” will negatively reflect on the MPs and reduce the scope of their work and their ability to hold authorities accountable, as well as affect the rest of society. 

Deteriorating parliament 

Most MPs attempt to adhere to the processes of oversight and legislation without engaging in a deeper political role, justifying their choice by simplifying their image as “service MPs” or “independent MPs.” This choice has been adopted by MPs who do not wish to confront or question the Shia Coordination Framework (SCF)—the largest parliamentary bloc—to avoid any collision with them. 

However, the incident of Al-Salami has demonstrated the inability to sustain the model of service or independent MP, as it is possible to pursue, silence, and restrict their powers in ways that acquire a legal character. Al-Salami’s “political neutrality” on freedom issues did not prevent the authorities from targeting him. Even his former statements that aligned with the campaign to restrict freedoms in the past—such as his stance against wedding and celebration halls in Najaf—did not vindicate him, as the issue of freedom suppression for the authorities is linked to political objectives aimed at silencing their opponents, and not stemming from a specific ethical stance. The various ethical interpretations of this repression process are nothing more than a tool to cover up the political objectives. 

Thus, even those individuals or institutions that contribute today to undermining freedom of expression with various pretexts can become future targets of this pattern of repression. This scenario is likely to occur unless the vague terms and elastic expressions in the Iraqi laws are removed, and a serious and bold stand is taken against attempts to silence people and draw new red lines in Iraq. 

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Despite the fact that all members of parliament (MP) possess immunity preventing their arrest or the initiation of legal proceedings against them during their tenure, the interpretation of the Supreme Federal Court No. 90 of 2021 ruled that it is possible to arrest any MP for charges are misdemeanors, which include imprisonment for less than five years. 

The Federal Court’s interpretation was based on Article 63 of the Iraqi Constitution, which refers to parliamentary immunity only for charges that are “feloinies”, which includes imprisonment for more than five years, without any reference to misdemeanors. 

In practice, this interpretation allows for the pursuit of MPs in misdemeanor cases simply for criticizing ministers and officials, and ultimately forces them to stop performing their parliamentary duties. 

Several MPs, in previous public sessions of the council, raised this issue and spoke about cases where they were forced to appear before the courts as a result of their criticism of executive officials, but no practical steps to resolve the problem have been taken. 

Root of the problem 

The case of Hadi Al-Salami is part of a broader, systematic effort by the authorities to limit freedom of expression in Iraq. This is facilitated by the imprecision of Iraqi laws and their broad language, which allows for the arrest of anyone who criticizes the government’s performance or the conduct of its officials, or who contributes to exposing corruption. 

Al-Salami’s case is not very different from the cases of several activists and journalists who were arrested or had arrest warrants issued against them as a result of their critical opinions, the only difference being in the tools used. In cases like the activist Haider Al-Zaidi, the journalist Ahmad Mulla Talal, the writer Sarmad Al-Taie, or others, recourse is made to the provisions of Article 226 of the Penal Code, which allows for the arrest of individuals for up to 7 years for what the legal article describes as “insulting authorities.” In the case of MP, recourse is made to the articles related to misdemeanor crimes that can legally bypass parliamentary immunity. 

Despite the Ministry of Trade later dropping the lawsuit against Al-Salami—as has been done in most of these cases against various activists—these lawsuits are considered, from the moment of their initiation, a tool of repression through intimidating society with the consequences of criticizing authority. 

In all these cases, the fundamental right of citizens—including MPs—to speak their opinions is passed over. The truth is that this right is continuously undermined. 

Instead of engaging in the right of expressing an opinion, the public debate is diverted to “other” topics that stray from discussing the authenticity of individuals’ right to express their opinions. In Al-Salami’s case, the trial was based on Article 331 of the Penal Code, which in practice is related to depriving the right to criticism and speech. However, a wide network of media close to the authorities accused Al-Salami of forging government documents, as a way to justify repressive behavior, framing Al-Salami as a perpetrator of forgery, rather than portraying him as a victim of a repressive pattern aimed at preventing people from criticizing the authorities. 

 Moves to distract public opinion from matters of freedom have followed every arrest or legal restriction, to transform those affected from being victims of expressing their opinions into offenders deserving the arrest or restriction imposed on them. 

Before and after 

The presence of vague phrases in the Iraqi Penal Code, such as “insulting the authorities” in Article 226 and “violating public decency and morals” in Article 403, allows various state institutions to prosecute those who question or criticize them, ultimately silencing them through judicial means. 

Once the authorities drop legal actions against opponents, media campaigns are launched to glorify the same entities that initiated the lawsuits, linking them with qualities such as “forgiveness” and “tolerance” just because they have stopped violating freedoms… whereas some victims are forced to praise their jailers, as an additional form of oppression. 

Additionally, a stereotypical image of the opposition figures is created, portraying them as linked to foreign agendas and as agents of Western countries. Or as has recently been happening, accusing them of spreading homosexuality and   promoting the “concept of gender”, or “degrading content” and seeking to undermine societal principles and values and encouraging the dissolution of families. All of these accusations serve to strip opposition figures of their ethical and national symbolism, ultimately easing any assault and undermining social sympathy for their causes. These accusations share the characteristic of being elastic and based on undefined ethical concepts.  

In addition to making it not an issue of freedom of expression, the Al-Salami case has been given a sectarian character by portraying it as a personal problem between the Minister of Trade, who belongs to the Sunni sect, and a deputy from the Shia province of Najaf. 

By activating it in this way, sectarian tensions are exacerbated to serve the interests of the current political class, which typically invests in sectarian conflict and relies on it as a fundamental part of its discourse to mobilize voters, and also distracts society’s attention from the fact that the issue fundamentally relates to rights and freedoms. 

Future impacts  

With Al-Salami’s arrest, a new pattern of repression is being practiced, and it could evolve—unless opposed—to include the use of other legal articles such as 330 and 334-340 from the Penal Code, which are classified as misdemeanors, in addition to being crimes that breach honor, causing the MP to lose his membership if a judicial order is issued against him accordingly. 

In practice, parliamentary membership can be withdrawn from any MP accused of honor-breaching crimes, as happened with the former Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi. With the current campaign to undermine rights and freedoms, it is likely that other deputies will be targeted and this legal tool will be used for political blackmail and neutralizing opponents, rather than as a means to achieve justice. 

On the other hand, any parliamentary attempt to avert danger for the members of parliament cannot occur in isolation from stopping the oppression and restriction against other actors such as activists, civil society organizations, and various other segments of society. Rights and freedoms come as one package, and their segmentation or attempts to make them work for some groups or authorities and not others, will lead to more repression. The continued existence of red lines with buzzwords such as “insulting the authorities,” “gender,” and “misbehaved content” will negatively reflect on the MPs and reduce the scope of their work and their ability to hold authorities accountable, as well as affect the rest of society. 

Deteriorating parliament 

Most MPs attempt to adhere to the processes of oversight and legislation without engaging in a deeper political role, justifying their choice by simplifying their image as “service MPs” or “independent MPs.” This choice has been adopted by MPs who do not wish to confront or question the Shia Coordination Framework (SCF)—the largest parliamentary bloc—to avoid any collision with them. 

However, the incident of Al-Salami has demonstrated the inability to sustain the model of service or independent MP, as it is possible to pursue, silence, and restrict their powers in ways that acquire a legal character. Al-Salami’s “political neutrality” on freedom issues did not prevent the authorities from targeting him. Even his former statements that aligned with the campaign to restrict freedoms in the past—such as his stance against wedding and celebration halls in Najaf—did not vindicate him, as the issue of freedom suppression for the authorities is linked to political objectives aimed at silencing their opponents, and not stemming from a specific ethical stance. The various ethical interpretations of this repression process are nothing more than a tool to cover up the political objectives. 

Thus, even those individuals or institutions that contribute today to undermining freedom of expression with various pretexts can become future targets of this pattern of repression. This scenario is likely to occur unless the vague terms and elastic expressions in the Iraqi laws are removed, and a serious and bold stand is taken against attempts to silence people and draw new red lines in Iraq.