Alleged kidnapping of activist's 10-year-old son provokes stir in Iraq
The disappearance of an anti-government activist's 10-year-old son has provoked a stir in Iraq, after his father claimed that his son was a kidnapped by a powerful militia group and that authorities attempted to cover it up.
The child of Ayoub Al-Khazraji, an activist since 2011 and a participant in anti-government demonstrations which erupted in Iraq in October 2019, was allegedly set upon by armed assailants in the Al-Ghadeer neighbourhood of eastern Baghdad.
They reportedly held him ransom, demanding that his father return from the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, where he had fled to after a series of death threats from Iraqi militia groups. Al-Khazraji had recently spoken about the threat to his life on the audio-chat app Clubhouse, the activist told the Rudaw media network.
In the aftermath, Khazraji said he was threatened by Shia militias, including the Sadrist movement, as well as the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah.
Through a Twitter account reportedly belonging to Al-Khazraji, the activist tweeted a desperate call for his son to be freed on Tuesday, writing: "It's my only son".
On Wednesday, Iraq's interior ministry issued a statement denying that the boy had been kidnapped, claiming that he had joined Shia pilgrims heading to the Al-Kadhimiya area in northern Baghdad. A media Twitter account of the interior ministry posted a video purporting to show the boy reunited with his grandfather at a local police station.
The boy's father, however, disputed that account in a series of tweets on Wednesday. While acknowledging that authorities had found the young boy "lost" in a district in Baghdad, he criticised what he suggested was a cover-up and decried hidden negotiations with militia groups which allegedly led to his son's release.
Twitter users, likely linked to Iraqi militia groups which weild powerful influence in the country's politics, attacked Ayoub for spreading "fake news". Al-Khazraji responded by sharing a private message he had received, purportedly from the assailants behind his son's kidnapping. It read: "Come back to Baghdad and then we can come to an understanding about your son, you traitor".
Iraqi social media users had expressed shock and dismay at claims of the young's boy kidnapping, launching a hash tag campaign for him to freed. Omar al-Janabi, a prominent Iraqi journalist, decried the use of children as bargaining chips by militia groups.
Amar Al-Noaimi, a friend of Al-Khazraji, told The New Arab’s Arabic-language site that the social media uproar may have pressured the militia group to release him.
Activists and their families are often targeted by armed groups in Iraq, who threaten them for their involvement in the country's protest movement.
Anti-government rallies began in Baghdad and Iraq's Shia-majority south in October 2019 as protesters called for basic services, a total overhaul of the ruling class and an end to corruption.
Hardline units of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU) are widely believed to be behind the killing of protesters. There has been virtually no accountability for the deaths in those rallies.