By Alice Fordham, Updated: Wednesday, April 4, 3:30 AM
BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government is debating proposed laws that would impose strict controls on freedom of speech and association, prompting fears that the authorities are playing a growing and increasingly oppressive role in citizens’ lives.
As the country settles into its new identity as a sovereign state, about four months after the departure of the last American troops, some Iraqis are nervous that the government is moving back toward the heavy-handed monitoring of citizens that was a hallmark of life under dictator Saddam Hussein.
In parliament, there has been fierce debate of several draft laws. One would carry harsh penalties for online criticism of the government. Another would require demonstrators to get permission for any gathering.
Local and international human rights groups say the proposed legislation is vague and would give the government power to move against people or parties critical of the government.
“In Iraq, we need to respect all the ideas,” said an activist and blogger known as Hayder Hamzoz who is campaigning against a proposed information technology law that would mandate a year’s imprisonment for anyone who violates “religious, moral, family, or social values” online.
The proposed law also contains a sentence of life imprisonment for using computers or social networks to compromise “the independence of the state or its unity, integrity, safety.”
Hamzoz, who does not use his real name out of concern for his safety, said the legislation is intended to allow the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to control social media. The government essentially did just that more than a year ago, when it swiftly smothered an uprising inspired by the Arab Spring revolts sweeping the region.
“It’s to attack the activists,” Hamzoz said.
Activists and nongovernmental organizations have criticized the proposed laws that would impose rules on gatherings and forbid meetings in religious establishments, universities and government buildings for anything other than the facilities’ primary purpose.
The Center for Law and Democracy, a U.S.-based advocacy organization, produced a report in December criticizing Iraq’s government for proposing a “number of legal rules which do not meet basic constitutional and international human rights standards.”
In addition to the legislation on Internet use and demonstrations, parliament is debating a law governing the formation of political parties and media organizations.
The Center for Law and Democracy’s report argues that vague rules “may be used to prohibit a wide range of expression which is either merely offensive or perhaps even simply politically unpalatable.”
Many argue that the country, which is emerging from more than 30 years of autocracy under Hussein and then years of conflict and instability after the U.S. invasion, needs tough laws to establish clear ground rules.
“Something should be organized, and the people should know their rights,” said Tariq Harb, a legal expert close to Maliki.
Harb was scornful of those campaigning against the new legislation, saying that the measures reflect international norms. “In London, when there were riots, there were people jailed because of the Internet,” he said.
Harb also argued that Iraq is far more liberal than some of its neighbors, notably Iran and Saudi Arabia, with alcohol available in Baghdad and no official dress code for women.
But others, particularly women’s rights groups, balked at a letter issued late last year by a government committee suggesting that female government employees dress modestly. Another committee has instructed university students of both sexes — who generally adorn a rainbow of head coverings and fashionable jeans — to adopt a muted palette and “decent” clothing.
Alaa Makki, a member of parliament who is part of the committee that issued the rule, said he had reservations about imposing a dress code on young people. But, he added, members of the powerful religious parties had more influence than did liberals.
“The religious parties are politicians, and they are religious leaders in society,” Makki said. “And politicians have to fulfill the demands of imams or they will be marginalized.”
Basma al-Khateb, a women’s rights activist, said some of the government’s moves reminded her of the harsh controls under Hussein, before he was ousted in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. She said she feared that the new democratic system had brought to power groups with autocratic tendencies and conflicting religious and political loyalties.
“At least with Saddam, we had one red line,” she said. “Now everyone is Saddam. We have 300 Saddams, each with his bloc and his party.”