Iraq's Parliament discusses controversial cyber crimes bill

There are widespread objections to bill that proposes heavy prison sentences and fines for peaceful online expressions of dissent

Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Shia Al Sudani in the Iraqi Parliament during a confidence vote on his new government on October 27, 2022. Iraqi Parliament media office
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Iraq’s Parliament conducted the first reading of a cyber crime draft law on Monday despite objections from campaigners who see it as a threat to freedom of expression.

The bill was introduced in 2013, two years after it was drafted. But under pressure from local and international non-government organisations, Parliament shelved it.

Parliament will debate the draft of the Law on Information Technology Crimes following the first reading, in the next step towards its possible approval.

The bill addresses a wide range of cyber crimes and is partly intended to protect online privacy and allow the punishment of hackers.

But what concerns campaigners are articles that impose heavy prison sentences and fines for criticism posted online.

Anyone who is found to be threatening the country’s “independence, unity, safety and its economic, political, military and security interests” would face life imprisonment, according to a copy of the bill.

Fines of no less than 25 million Iraqi dinars (about $17,000) and no more than 50 million dinars could also be imposed.

The same penalty is applied to anyone “disturbing the general peace and security, and defaming the country’s reputation”.

A penalty of no less than a year in prison and fines ranging from two to five million Iraqi dinars would be in store for anyone who “assaults the religious or ethical or family or social or private life principles and values”.

Many politicians have rejected the bill, saying it contradicts the country's 2005 constitution that protects the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and peaceful demonstration.

"The Law on Information Technology Crimes draft is incompatible to the constitution that guarantees freedom of expression," said Noor Al Jalihawi, an independent MP from the southern province of Diwaniyah.

"We will team up with other colleagues who defend rights and freedom to prevent approving such laws."

Another MP, Sarwa Abdul Wahid, said the "draft law in its current form is rejected because it restricts freedoms" and needed to focus on dealing with blackmail and fake and suspicious websites instead.

Parliament's work was suspended for more than a year because of political deadlock in forming a new government, with each side accusing the other of trying to seize control of the state.

That stalemate led to clashes between Shiite militias inside the Green Zone, the location of Parliament, government offices, residences of senior politicians and foreign embassies.

October 2021's elections were the fifth parliamentary vote for a full-term government since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

The deadlock ended when a political group endorsed by influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr withdrew from the political process, allowing the Iran-backed Co-ordination Framework to form the government.

Last month, the national assembly approved the new government led by Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani, who has the support of the Co-ordination Framework, which is made up of Shiite militias and political parties close to Iran despite their loss in the elections.

Mr Al Sudani is close to former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, who was widely accused during his eight years in office of centralising power and repressing dissent.

Last week, Mr Al Sudani appointed Abdul Karim Al Jabari, the former head of an Iraqi intelligence agency backed by Mr Al Maliki, to lead a counter corruption task force. Both Mr Al Sudani and Mr Al Maliki also met last week to discuss those efforts.

If passed, the law will be “the beginning of establishing a modern dictatorship”, journalist Salam Al Husseini said on Twitter.

“The Co-ordination Framework will spare no efforts to protect its illegal gains and it will start with the Law on Information Technology Crimes,” Mr Al Husseini said.

Updated: November 21, 2022, 1:59 PM