Iraqis call on top Shiite cleric to help release kidnapped protester

Sajad Al Iraqi remains missing after almost a week after his abduction, despite a security operation to find him

epa08656669 Jobless graduates chant slogans during a demonstration near the heavily fortified Green Zone which houses the Iraqi government offices in central Baghdad, Iraq, 09 September 2020. Thousands of university graduates and jobless people continue their protests in Baghdad outside government ministries demanding jobs, while the Iraqi government admits it has not planned for the large numbers of students coming into the job market every year.  EPA/AHMED JALIL
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Iraqi protesters have called on top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani to intervene in finding a demonstrator whose kidnapping triggered widespread anger at the government’s inability to protect the public.

Sajad Al Iraqi and his colleague Bassem Fleih were attacked by gunmen last Saturday near the southern city of Nasiriyah.

Mr Al Fleih was taken to a nearby hospital but Mr Al Iraqi was kidnapped.

Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi ordered an investigation team earlier this week to find Mr Al Iraqi and arrest his abductors but there has been no news of him since.

“We urgently call on Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani to intervene and help release Sajad Al Iraqi. He did not do anything wrong,” protesters in the southern governorate of Dhi Qar said in a statement released on Thursday.

“We are peacefully demonstrating, just as our religious authorities advised us, despite the torture, oppression and violence we face, for the release of Sajad,” they said.

Iraqis took to social media to vent their frustration at the government’s inability to free Mr Al Iraqi. A video was circulated of his mother pleading for his return.

“My heart is shattered into pieces, it’s been more than five days since he was kidnapped. Please do not kill my son, his death will not make a difference, it will trigger hundreds more,” she said.

“All he has ever done was go out and protest just like hundreds of others. He’s a good person, never harmed anyone.”

The arrests, kidnappings, and torture have created an atmosphere of fear that extends beyond the site of the demonstrations. Many now say they feel less safe at home than they do at the protests.

Protesters believe this is a tactic to silence those who rebel against the system and push them to abandon the anti-government movement or even flee the country.

More than 600 protesters have been killed since the protest movement started last October. Mr Al Kadhimi vowed to hold the killers to account after taking office in May.

But Iraqis are angry at the government’s failure to address or take responsibility for its part in the bloodshed, or to hold militias of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces accountable.

Militia members are believed to be behind some of the killings.

The protest movement began on October 1 last year as thousands of mostly young Iraqis took to the streets to express their frustration over poor public services, unemployment and foreign intervention in the country's affairs. The demonstrations have continued despite a violent response from security forces and the targeting of protesters, but petered out after the Covid-19 pandemic reached Iraq.

The protesters want an overhaul of Iraq's political system, which allocates positions to political parties based on ethnic and sectarian identity, saying it allows corruption and patronage.