Criminalising dissent in Iraq

Criminalising dissent in Iraq
Comment: Following the US-imposed de-Baathification process, a new law criminalises Iraq's political dissidents by branding them 'Baathists', writes Tallha Abdulrazaq.
5 min read
08 Aug, 2016
The new law is another institutionalised threat to Iraq's democratic prospects [Getty]

In its latest attempt to silence dissent and clamp down on those who oppose the post-invasion political process, the Iraqi parliament passed a new anti-Baath law last week.

Ostensibly aimed at criminalising the Baath Party of former President Saddam Hussein, a deeper reading of the new law shows that it is a further dangerous development in Iraq's already disjointed and easily manipulated legal system - empowering the elites of Baghdad's Green Zone while criminalising any opposition.

The de-Baathification legacy

When Paul Bremer was appointed as Iraq's governor following the United States' invasion and occupation in 2003, he quickly instituted a number of laws under the authority of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

The most infamous of these became known as the de-Baathification law, which removed all alleged Baathists from public office and the civil service, and prevented them from future employment across the public sector, as well as from the security and intelligence services.

What many do not understand is that most Iraqis were formally, if not ideologically, members of the Baath Party. Under the party's rule, it was difficult - if not outright impossible - for anyone to advance their careers if they were not members of the party, and these careers ranged widely from those in the military to even academic positions. This was a simple, economic fact of life in Baathist Iraq.

As such, Bremer's law, used by successive Iraqi governments ever since, has been invoked by political parties with known sectarian agendas, to adopt marginalisation policies against the Sunni population.

Numerous Sunni politicians were excised from the political process and branded "Baathists", despite having committed no crimes. The primary perpetrator of the illegitimate use of legal means to disenfranchise the Sunnis is the ruling Dawa Party, which has been in power in various forms for 13 years.

The evolution of de-Baathification

Where the de-Baathification law prevented people from joining the political process or denied them economic opportunities, it did not directly lead to punishment through the criminal justice system. However, this has now changed with this latest law.

This law is very broad and very vague, and it is intentionally so

The new law criminalises the Baath Party and prevents it from returning to politics "under any name". It further criminalises political activities that are deemed to be encouraging of sectarian cleansing, terrorism, racism and even "takfirism".

Finally, the law bans all political parties that "conflict with democratic principles" and the "peaceful transition of power", meting out a ten-year prison sentence to any who break the law.

As should be quite apparent, the law is very broad and very vague, and it is intentionally so. Due to the aforementioned career progression requirement of joining the Baath Party, this law essentially means that almost any Iraqi can now be incarcerated for a decade, despite having committed no crime and there being no formal charges against them.

It also means that the very idea of Baathist secular pan-Arab socialism has now been criminalised, rather than strictly identifying those Baathists responsible for various crimes throughout their rule from the 1960s until 2003.

After all, socialism and Arabism are common in the Arab world, so any party that seems to espouse these ideals would run the risk of being identified as being a covert Baathist organisation and banned as a result.

This law is impractical, unjust and unworkable in a free, fair and democratic society

Finally, even if someone generally opposed Saddam's rule and the Baathist government, they may be at risk of having committed a criminal offence - merely by praising those of the regime's more positive policies, some of which made a substantial difference to the lives of Iraqi people. After all, Iraqis enjoyed a high standard of living, education and health service under Baathist rule throughout the 1970s and 1980s, despite the gruelling war with Iran.

In fact, merely by writing the previous sentence, I may have committed a criminal offence under Iraqi law that could see me imprisoned for a decade for expressing an opinion that may be deemed as "praising the Baath Party".

Will the law affect the Green Zone?

It should now be very clear that this law is impractical, unjust and unworkable in the free, fair and democratic society that the Iraqi government insists the Iraqi people enjoy today. The law is far too broad and vague, tarring entire segments of the Iraqi populace as Baathists, with dissidents in particular facing extraordinary risks whenever they exercise their right to freedom of expression.

Moreover, it is extremely ironic that Iraq has criminalised the Baathist ideology in Iraq, while supporting the Syrian Baathists embodied by the regime of embattled President Bashar al-Assad. Iraqi territory is reportedly used as a staging ground for the transfer of sectarian Shia militias, Afghan mercenaries and Iranian military personnel and materiel, all for the benefit of the Assad war effort.

This law was not designed to target those who have already bought shares and stocks in Iraq's corrupt political process

In light of the above, does this mean that all those in the Iraqi government and security services who are facilitating such efforts - including the prime minister, his cabinet and militia leaders - must be sentenced to a decade in prison? Of course not, as supporting the genocide against the Syrian people that has now claimed 400,000 lives, is Iraqi government policy, in line with its subservience to its Iranian suzerain.

This law was not designed to target those who have already bought stocks and shares in Iraq's corrupt political process, but to ensure that the political process is insulated and protected from Iraqis who have no faith it and view it with distrust, disdain - and as a tool of foreign control over Iraq.

As such, Iraqis can forget this law being applied to the likes of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other members of the political elite known for their sectarianism, as it is a law designed to prevent the Iraqis themselves from ever voicing criticism or dissenting, hanging the spectre of being branded as a "Baathist" over their heads.

If democracy was ever at risk in Iraq, it has never been more at risk than it is today.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues". Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.