x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Al Maliki's critics fear for their safety after threats

Independent MP Sabah Al Saadi faces threat of prosecution after alleging that there are official plots to murder journalists, tribal leaders - and him.

The MP Sabah Al Saadi is a former head of Iraq's Integrity Commission. Khalid Mohammed / AP Photo
The MP Sabah Al Saadi is a former head of Iraq's Integrity Commission. Khalid Mohammed / AP Photo

BAGHDAD // An independent MP and former head of Iraq's corruption watchdog is claiming he is the latest victim in a high-level campaign of violent intimidation against critics of the prime minister Nouri Al Maliki.

Parliament is expected this week to vote on removing Sabah Al Saadi's parliamentary immunity. The government then is expected to seek his arrest for his outspoken criticism of the leader.

Ali Shlah, an MP and member of Mr Al Maliki's State of Law bloc, said: "Sabah Al Saadi accused the prime minister [Al Maliki] without any evidence so we are trying to get a court order to have him arrested and we will ask parliament to remove his immunity so that can happen. Legal proceedings should be taken against him."

Mr Al Saadi has accused Mr Al Maliki of growing authoritarianism and has spoken of official plots to murder journalists, tribal leaders and politicians - including himself - for speaking out against the prime minister's administration.

While the combination of Iraqi politics, oil money, militia groups, insurgency and warring intelligence agencies has proved a fertile ground for conspiracy theories, Mr Al Saadi's claims have been given added weight by his former position as head of Iraq's Integrity Commission, and by events themselves.

Recently a prominent critic of Mr Al Maliki, the journalist Hadi Al Mahdi, was murdered and a leading independent official, Rahim Al Ugaeily, the former integrity commission chief, forced from office.

Mr Al Ugaeily resigned as the head of the integrity commission on September 10, blaming political interference in his inquiries and a lack of government support for his anti-corruption efforts. Members of Mr Al Maliki's Dawa party, as well as other political blocs, had been under investigation.

Two days before Mr Ugaeily stepped down, Mr Al Mahdi, a popular talk show host, was shot in his Baghdad home, despite living in one of the capital's more secure areas with a constant police presence in the street outside.

Mr Al Mahdi had been detained and beaten after criticising the Iraqi government, and had been involved in organising public demonstrations calling for officials to be held to account for rampant corruption and years of failures to significantly improve basic services.

His murder, and the integrity commission chief's resignation so soon after, has been taken by many Iraqis as a signal that claims of high-level wrongdoing have substance.

Mr Al Saadi insists efforts to have him prosecuted for his comments only confirm that Iraq's prime minister is doing all he can to silence his opponents, particularly those trying to expose corruption.

"Al Maliki is trying to stop everyone he believes to be against him," Mr Al Saadi said in an interview. "He is trying to pressure those fighting corruption. He is ready to do anything to stop journalists exposing the truth. He is playing by the same rules of threat and fear that Saddam Hussein used when he first arrived in power."

It remains unclear under what laws Mr Saadi might be prosecuted.

But the suggestion of official involvement in a campaign of violent intimidation has certainly found an audience with Iraqi journalists, who say the dangers of reporting truthfully on government actions are increasing.

Hakam Al Rubaie, a columnist whose writing appears in various Iraqi newspapers, said: "There is too much pressure on us now, and the murder of Hadi Al Mahdi was a clear attempt to stop free and independent voices from talking about what is really happening in this country.

"It was bad enough to be targeted by militia groups and Al Qaeda. Now we are seeing Iraqi politicians becoming more and more aggressive against journalists."

Mr Al Rubaie, and many of his colleagues, said they were now more frequently publishing under pseudonyms because it was too dangerous to write under their real names.

"If you want to talk about subjects like corruption, or even terrorism and militias, you are taking your life in your hands in Iraq today," he said.

A number of powerful political figures have sprung to Mr Al Saadi's defence, including Muqtada Al Sadr, the clerical leader of the Sadrist movement. Despite being allied to Mr Al Maliki's political bloc in the coalition government, Mr Al Sadr's office condemned attempts to arrest Mr Al Saadi.

"We do not want clashes between Iraqi political blocs and we do not want a new Saddam Hussein in Iraq," a statement released by Mr Al Sadr's offices said, urging the Iraqi prime minister to "rethink" his position and seek consensus instead of conflict.

 

nlatif@thenational.ae