Court orders Guardian to pay prime minister damages over article that quoted allegations of increasing authoritarianism

An Iraqi court has ordered the Guardian to pay the prime minister, Nour al-Maliki, damages of 100m dinar (£51,000) after supporting a complaint by the Iraqi leader's intelligence service that a story defamed him by describing him as increasingly autocratic.

The court delivered its ruling six months after the award-winning correspondent Ghaith Abdul-Ahad wrote a piece quoting three unnamed members of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS) as saying the prime minister was beginning to run Iraqi affairs with an authoritarian hand.

Maliki was not a party to the legal action. However, a five member panel of experts who provided opinions to the court said Iraqi publishing law forbade foreigners from publishing articles critical of the prime minister or president, and from interfering in Iraqi internal affairs

The ruling overlooked the fact that the author of the piece is an Iraqi citizen, and ignored vast amounts of critical coverage of Iraq by foreign media spanning the three years since Maliki was elected as leader.

It also trumped earlier advice provided by three independent experts to the trial judge in October. The experts, all prominent members of the Iraqi Journalists' Union, were commissioned by the court. They unanimously found that the article was neither defamatory nor insulting, and that no damages were warranted.

Attempts to identify one of the panel members who provided the second opinion – named as Hussein al-Arkabi, a journalist – were last night unsuccessful, with none of 12 Iraqi media outlets contacted in Baghdad recognising his name. However, a second "expert", Salah Najim al-Maliki – no relation of the prime minister – was last night revealed as the host of a legal affairs programme on the government-run, staunchly partisan al-Iraqia television channel.

Maliki has repeatedly advocated press freedoms and a rising tide of democracy in Iraq, which he says are essential to nation-building efforts. However, Iraqi officials have become increasingly sensitive to scrutiny of their achievements ahead of a general election scheduled for 21 January. Journalists covering routine violence in Iraq have reported being assaulted by security officials in recent weeks after two huge bombings destroyed three government ministries and the Baghdad governorate.

The allegedly defamatory article, Six years after Saddam Hussein, Nouri al-Maliki tightens his grip on Iraq, was published on 31 April, the day the prime minister arrived in London seeking British investment in Iraq. Maliki immediately launched an action to close down the Guardian's Baghdad bureau, and demanded damages of $1m. He later backed down on the closure threat.

Iraqi observers last night described the amount of damages ordered to be paid as "very high". The paper will appeal the verdict, first through Iraqi appeals courts, then through the federal court.

The allegedly defamatory Guardian story had also claimed, through the observations of the three intelligence officers, that the Iraqi government was close to the US, and that officials attached to the Iraqi National Intelligence Service had been ordered to monitor intelligence and military activities inside Iraq.

The INIS is the prime minister's top intelligence body, one of 18 to have risen from the ashes of the dreaded Mukhabarat, which reported to the ousted dictator, Saddam Hussein. Though remaining pervasive in everyday life, Iraq's new band of intelligence bodies have nothing like the bad reputation of their predecessors and are considered reasonably effective tools in infiltrating extremist networks.