Two killed in Iraq while protesting sentence for activist over tweet

Activist sent to jail for three years for criticising Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, who was killed in a US strike

Iraqis burn tyres during a protest in Nasiriyah, in October. Protests broke out again on Wednesday, over a disputed court ruling. AFP
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Two people were killed by security forces in southern Iraq on Wednesday during a protest against a prison sentence given to an activist over a Twitter post.

Hayder Al Zaidi, 20, was convicted by a court in Baghdad of criticising state-sanctioned militia and sentenced to three years in prison.

Troops opened fire on hundreds of protesters in Nasiriyah, who had taken to the streets after the verdict was announced.

The protesters chanted anti-government slogans, according to an AFP correspondent.

“Two protesters were shot dead” in the clashes and 21 others were wounded, including five by gunfire, said Hussein Riyad, a spokesman for the Dhi Qar provincial health ministry.

Mr Riyad said a police officer was among those wounded.

Zaidi, who was active in mass anti-government protests that began in October 2019, has said he did not write the post on Twitter that led to his conviction.

He was charged under a law that forbids publicly insulting any government institution or official.

The tweet in question, posted in January on Zaidi’s account, showed a picture of Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, the former deputy commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella group of mostly Shiite paramilitary groups.

Muhandis was killed in a US strike in January 2020 that also killed Gen Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force.

The social media post mocked his designation as a “martyr” by many in Iraq and described him as an “agent spy.”

Al Zaidi was arrested over the tweet in June and released after 16 days on bail. He said his account was hacked.

“Regardless of who posted the Twitter message, the Iraqi justice system should not be used as a tool to suppress peaceful criticism of the authorities or armed actors,” said Human Rights Watch deputy Middle East director, Adam Coogle.

He said the harsh sentence given to Al Zaidi was a “sad reflection on the rule of law in Iraq” given that “dozens of officials and armed groups enjoy impunity for killing activists and protesters.”

Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: December 07, 2022, 7:23 PM