Among the collection of Near Eastern antiquities in the Louvre Museum is the statue of Queen Napir-Asu, the wife of an Elamite king who ruled ancient Iraq, or what was known as Mesopotamia. On the statue’s base, an inscription says, “He who would seize my statue, who would smash it, who would destroy its inscription, who would erase my name, may he be smitten by the curse of Napirisha, of Kiririsha, and of Inshushinak, that his name shall become extinct, that his offspring be barren, that the forces of Beltiya, the great goddess, shall sweep down on him”. The statue, which dates back to the fourteenth century BC, was found decapitated.
In the twenty-first century AD, on the morning of 9 March 2003, Abu Tahseen stood in front of the gate of the Olympic Committee in Baghdad. In his left hand was a picture of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whose regime had just fallen. With a slipper in his other hand, he started beating the face of the president, who was wearing sunglasses in the picture, while shouting, “Everyone, come… Come say what you have been feeling. This is the freedom we have been deprived of. This is who oppressed us. Now we see freedom”.
Another Iraqi citizen wearing traditional Arab clothing (dishdasha, shemagh, and iqal) joined Abu Tahseen and headed towards the president’s picture, which was being beaten and insulted. He lifted the front of his dishdasha and directed his penis at the president’s mouth, which sparked hysterics among the bystanders, while Abu Tahseen continued beating the picture and shouting, “This is who killed our children, this is who killed our youth”.
Hours before that moment, Abu Tahseen would not have thought he would be the hero of a scene reported by international media outlets. He was the first Iraqi to freely and publicly express his opinion without fear of partisans, the General Security Service, or intelligence services that kidnapped and executed many on charges of insulting the president. This occurred under the Iraqi Penal Code No. 111 of 1969, which Saddam Hussein contributed to legislating as Vice President, and amended its articles as President, making it more cruel and threatening to freedom of expression.
Article 225 (amended in 1986) of the Iraqi Penal Code No. 111 stipulated that “Any person who publicly insults the President, his representative, the Revolutionary Command Council, the Arab Socialist Baʿath Party, the National Council, or the government, is punishable by life imprisonment that can amount to the death penalty if the insult is blatant, and with the intent of inciting public opinion against authority”.
This law was the regime’s tool to spread fear and inflict brutal redress, not to punish offences, but rather to warn all Iraqis that they would have the same fate as those punished if they insulted the president or the party. State television broadcast death sentences using threatening and intimidating language to smear whoever “dared to harm the leader of the revolution, the heroic fighter, President Saddam Hussein, may God protect him”.
Fifteen years after this memorable scene, and on the fifteenth commemoration of the invasion of Iraq, Abu Tahseen spoke again, saying, “I do not regret hitting Saddam’s picture, and if Saddam Hussein was hit only by my shoe, then a shoe factory is needed now to punish the corrupt who destroyed everything in Iraq”.
On 16 May 2003, everything related to the Baʿath Party and President Saddam Hussein was banned. The “Supreme National De-Baʿathification Commission” was established by Order No. 1, issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority. U.S. Government official, Paul Bremer headed the coalition to terminate the Baʿath Party structure in Iraq and eliminate its leaders from authority. Accordingly, the army and other security apparatuses were dissolved, and thousands of employees were dismissed from the dismantled and collapsed state institutions.
Following this, the new Iraqi authority issued the “Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice” Law No. 10 of 2008, based on parliament’s approval and the provision of the first paragraph of Article 61 of the Interim Iraqi Constitution.
Article 3 of the Accountability and Justice Law states: “First: Prevent the return of the Baʿath Party to power or to the public life in Iraq whether in its ideas, culture, administration, policies or acts under any name. Second: Cleanse state institutions, mixed sector institutions, civil society institutions and Iraqi society from any shape or form of the Baʿath party system”.
However, this prohibition, prevention, and repeal did not include Penal Code No. 111, called “Saddam’s Law” by Iraqis, which includes other articles that are dangerous to civil liberty, such as Articles 226, 403, and 404. The last time the Federal Court considered an appeal against the Penal Code 111 in 2018, it decided that the Law did not contradict the “spirit” of the new constitution and was “consistent with the principles of freedom of expression”. The court refused to challenge the article on three occasions presented by freedom of expression organisations. Each time, its justification was that the article “does not contradict or contravene the constitution”.
Article 226 stipulates that “Any person who publicly insults the National Assembly or the government or the courts or the armed forces or any other constitutional body or the public authorities or official or semi-official agencies or departments is punishable by a term of imprisonment not exceeding seven years of detention or a fine”. The article did not define the action that is considered an “insult” to authorities.
According to the article’s provisions, the Supreme Judicial Council issued an arrest warrant on 2 June 2022 against journalist and writer, Sarmad Al-Ta’ie, after his statement on Al-Mohayed show broadcast by the official channel “Al-ʿIraqiyah”. The warrant stated that “According to Article 226 of the Iraqi Penal Code, Al-Ta’ie committed an offence by deliberately insulting the judicial institution on Al-Mohayed TV show”. As a result, the Iraqi Media Network deleted the episode in which Al-Ta’ie appeared and issued an apology statement.
The “offence” committed by the journalist which disturbed the Iraqi authorities was his statement about the result of the parliamentary elections, in which he criticised the Supreme Leader of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, Ali Khamenei, and the former Commander of the Iranian Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani. During his call, he said that “Faiq Zaidan (President of the Supreme Judicial Council) represents an emerging new dictatorship in the country, where arrest warrants are issued against anyone objecting to the Judicial Council’s president”.
The Supreme Judicial Court and its president issued a statement attacking Al-Ta’ie and the programme’s presenter Saʿdoun Mohsen Damad. This synchronised a campaign launched by pro-Iran armed militias, in which its platforms threatened to respond to the Iraqi Media Network in the “RabʿAllah way”, referring to the actions of pro-Iranian militia “RabʿAllah” when they stormed and destroyed offices of channels and media outlets in Baghdad that opposed Iranian interference in Iraq.
During the same period, the Iraqi authorities suspended the “With Mulla Talal” TV show and issued arrest warrants against its presenter, journalist Ahmad Mulla Talal, and actor Ayad Al-Ta’ie, following an episode with a scene criticising corruption in the Iraqi army. Based on Article 226 of Law No. 111, the Supreme Judicial Court also issued an arrest warrant against Muhammad Jabbar, presenter of the “Biwodouh” show, broadcast on “Zagros” TV. Additionally, the Iraqi Media Network (an official institution) dismissed journalist, Saleh Al-Hamdani, because of a Facebook post, based on the same Article.
Walls are all ears
“Unplug the phone cable”. My father used to say whenever he wanted to talk about politics, saying it as if I was about to carry out a secret mission. I remember him raising his thick eyebrows, his soft but firm tone of voice tone, and his facial expression indicating that I must do the job perfectly as there was no room for mistakes. A mistake could cost his life, and my father did not want to go to Abu Ghraib prison and climb to the gallows for insulting President Saddam Hussein.
Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraqis believed that “walls had ears” and that landline telephones were monitored by the party. They believed that discussions about politics, the president, or the Baʿath Party were risky and reckless and that only those who were fed up with being silent and threatened would dare to discuss them.
During a televised meeting with party leaders, Saddam Hussein said: “Counter-revolutionaries will be haunted by ghosts, disturbing their sleep, even if they think they are in a fortified locker”. He added: “Whoever stands against the revolution, be them a thousand, two, three, or even ten, whatever their number, I will cut their heads off without a single hair of me shaking, nor my heart trembling”.
This terrifying philosophy of seizing and monopolising power, and persecuting opposers, was manifested in the infamous Baʿath Party Purge incident, in which Saddam Hussein expelled sixty-eight Baʿathist comrades on charges of treason and plotting against the revolutionary leader and the party. He ordered their imprisonment and executed twenty-two of them. It was also apparent from what Barzan Al-Takriti, head of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, mentioned in his book,1 : “the Iraqi Intelligence Service is deeply proud that when a dissident, in the cafes of Paris or Prague, is about to criticise us, he turns left and right, fearing that there might be an intelligence officer around”.
After my father made sure that I had unplugged the telephone cable on the wooden shelf in the small hall at the house’s entrance, he went to the large guest reception room (Al-Diwaniya) and closed the door without allowing any of us to enter. There began his secret meetings with one of his three closest and trusted friends: Sabbar Al-ʿAjaj, and the brothers Hamid and Shakir Al-Burda, who never all gathered in one meeting.
Those secret gatherings of my father and his friends were not about forming an opposition political party, planning a coup, or criticising the ideology of the political order. They did not even aspire to discuss such things. My father was a taxi driver who did not read or write; his friends were no different. Their secret gatherings were to relieve their daily sufferings due to the embargo and poverty, and to criticise party members in the neighbourhood, who obtained their privileges by writing reports about their fellow citizens. Those meetings surely included some insults and jokes about the president and his family, which were more dangerous to circulate than drugs.
One of those jokes, for example, was about an Iraqi citizen, wearing ragged clothes, hobbling down the street from fatigue and hunger after the Desert Storm Operation and years of siege. The man pointed to his worn-out jacket and shouted, “May God help America… May God help America”. When security men surrounded him to ask what he meant, he answered, “If this is our condition after winning the war, imagine what happened in America that lost the war, as the president says!”
After three years of siege, my father no longer had to tell me to unplug the telephone cable. He sold the landline telephone and the television to Rashid Al-Kurdi, a street vendor who used to buy used clothes and household items, to provide for us in the following days. However, he continued his gatherings with his friends to talk about politics and laugh at new jokes about the president and the party, and they survived until the president, his party, and the country fell.
In the literature and political definitions of the Arab Socialist Baʿath Party, the “insults” stipulated in the Penal Code 111 extend to include jokes. It was one of the most common interpretations of insults that the party fought against, and it never tolerated whoever told, circulated, listened to, or remained silent about jokes.
The fatal “golden team” joke
While the US Marines were toppling Saddam Hussein’s statue in Al-Firdos Square in central Baghdad, Mrs ʿAwatif Al-Salman raised a black banner on the wall of her house in Al-Mansour district, which read: “The martyr, Dr Hisham Al-Salman was executed on 19/09/1988 because of a joke about Saddam Hussein”.
Hisham Al-Salman was one of the doctors of Saddam Hussein and his family, of the so-called “Golden Team”, a member of the Consulting Doctors Centre in Iraq, and a friend of Ismail Al-Tatar, who was also a doctor of the president and his family. Al-Tatar was a dermatologist and the director of Iraq’s Consulting Doctors Centre, and the son of Hassan Al-Tatar, President of the Court of Cassation during the monarchy. Ismail Al-Tatar was executed for the same crime as Hisham Al-Salman after the General Security Service placed recording devices in their homes, which taped them both laughing at a joke about Saddam Hussein.
The beginning of May 1988 marked the end of two of Iraq’s most famous and brilliant doctors at the time, as the official Iraqi TV broadcast a public statement announcing the arrest of the two doctors by the General Security Service. In September, the Revolutionary Court issued a decision to “execute the criminals, Ismail Al-Tatar and Hisham Al-Salman by hanging to death”, according to the execution report published after 2003. The verdict was based on Article 225 of the Iraqi Penal Code No. 111. The victims’ families were prevented from expressing grief or holding funerals, and the regime confiscated their movable and immovable properties.
The leader, who got irritated by jokes to the point of killing, also told jokes himself and laughed at them. Interestingly, the dictator used fear as joke material. For example, he told a joke during a televised meeting with members of the national leadership in the late eighties. After rearranging his seat, wearing his full military uniform, he joked about an owner of a clothing store telling his employee: “If the Ministry of Interior forces come and ask about this 500-dinar dress, tell them it costs ten dinars, and if they complain that the price is high, tell them to take it for free”. The president then howled with laughter along with the national leadership members.
By passing such laws and brutally enforcing them, the Baʿath Party enshrined fear through the language it used to announce “inflicting retribution” in order to achieve two goals: to intimidate and threaten society by manifesting cruelty in implementing punishments, and to smear the names of those punished in society through accusing them of treason, destabilising national security, and insulting state institutions. The party did so through its power and authority to achieve what the regime called “general deterrence”.
The Ninkasi Hymn and laws of the Coordination Framework
The turnout at the legislative elections that were held on 10 October 2021 was a “great disappointment” for the Islamist parties and for Nouri Al-Maliki, the pro-Iran, former prime minister and leader of the State of Law Coalition, who stated that the participation rate was “just under twenty per cent”.
The pro-Iran Islamist parties, known as the Coordination Framework, did not win the elections. However, after nullifying parliament and clashing with supporters of the Shiite leader Muqtada Al-Sadr, who won the largest number of seats, the Islamist parties were able to form a government and share power with the Sunnis and Kurds. This happened after Muqtada Al-Sadr withdrew his seventy members from parliament, allowing pro-Iran Islamist parties and armed militias to regain control of parliament and the government. Additionally, Naim Al-ʿAboudi, the new government’s Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, is spokesman for the ʿAsa’ib Ahl Al-Haq movement, an armed faction supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and designated as a terrorist organisation by the United States.
Qais Khazʿali, leader of ʿAsa’ib Ahl Al-Haq faction, who chose the prime minister along with Nouri Al-Maliki, defined the relationship between the prime minister and the Coordination Framework leaders during an interview on Al-ʿIraqiyah TV as follows: “The main point is that we made a distinction between state decisions and government administration. The prime minister should not monopolise state decisions; rather, he must refer to the Coordination Framework for strategic decisions, whether political, economic, or security related. Then the prime minister becomes more like a general director”.
Within the first 100 days of the Coordination Framework government, controversial articles of the Penal Code 111 were reinforced, such as Articles 403 and 404, in addition to the already enforced Article 226. Additionally, the Iraqi Parliament enacted the “Municipal Imports” Law No. 1 of 2023, in which Article 14 states: “First: It is prohibited to import, produce, or sell alcoholic beverages of all kinds. Second: Whoever violates Paragraph 1 of this article shall be punished with a fine of no less than ten million dinars and not more than twenty-five million dinars”.
While new Iraqi legislators were busy formulating laws to ban alcohol, archaeologists from the American University of Pennsylvania and the Italian University of Pisa were excavating a tavern dating back to 2700 B.C. in the Sumerian city of Lagash, containing a primitive cooling system for beer, benches, and bowls with food.
For ancient Iraqis: Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians, beer was a “gift of the gods” to give them joy and happiness and was associated with growth and fertility. Beer had a guardian goddess to make and preserve it: “Ninkasi”, the goddess of beer, daughter of Enki, god of water and wisdom, and Inanna, goddess of love, beauty, lust, fertility and war.
According to Sumerian mythology, “Ninkasi” was born of pure water. It was inscribed on the clay tablet of the “Ninkasi Hymn” that when she “soaks the malt in a jar, the waves rise and fall”, she “holds with both hands the great sweetwort”, and when she “pours out the filtered beer, it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates”. In the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, when Enkidu moved from the wilderness to the city of Uruk, he “drank seven jugs of beer, and his soul was freed, his face shone, became expansive and sang with joy”.
In modern-day Iraq, where a law banning alcohol has come into force, there are religions and sects for which wine is part of their rituals of worship, like the Yazidis and Christians. There are also Muslims who love and consume alcohol, and it is part of their daily social habits.
It is no longer possible to drink in public
In Abu Nuwas Street, the poet, of the same name, once said, “For never will I drink in shade if I can drink in shine”. Near his statue that cheers the passersby with a glass of wine, a group of Iraqis sits in a park overlooking the Tigris River, singing, having mezze, and talking about the new law criminalising and imprisoning those who drink alcohol. One of them says, “they ban alcohol to control its prices on the black market, and close bars to force people to go to nightclubs controlled by militias, where it is more profitable and expensive”. Another man replies, “It is a shell game. They want to spread drugs in society by banning alcoholic drinks. Thus, people turn to crystal meth, smuggled from Iran and sold by militias”.
Meanwhile, within the first 100 days of this government, the Iraqi judiciary postponed for the tenth time the trial of the murderer of Iraqi researcher, Hisham Al-Hashimi, due to pressure from the Iraqi “Hezbollah” armed brigades, to which the murderer belongs. Also, the Karkh Third Court released Nouri Al-Maliki, the former prime minister, after he bailed himself out. Al-Maliki was charged in a case after an audio was leaked in which he spoke of planning to form armed militias to follow his orders, inciting violence against the Kurds, Sunnis and his Shiite opponents (the Sadrists), and attacking state institutions and the Ministries of Defence and Interior. He even attacked the pro-Iran Popular Mobilisation Forces, describing its armed groups as a “nation of cowards”.
In a surreal press conference, Prime Minister Muhammad Shiaʿ Al-Sudani stood surrounded by stacks of cash, announcing that Nour Zuhair, owner of the five companies that stole 3.7 trillion Iraqi dinars (2.5 billion US dollars) from the tax authority, had been released on bail to return the money within two weeks. However, the thieves are loose, and weeks have passed with no trace of the money. Only 182 billion dinars (125 million US dollars) were returned to the state of what became known as the “heist of the century”, and the incident, in which the “Badr Organisation” was deeply involved, has been forgotten. The Badr Organisation is an armed militia whose leader is Hadi Al-ʿAmiri, one of the Coordination Framework leaders who selected the prime minister and formed the government.
Not everyone, however, can evade imprisonment in Iraq, as there are other issues that the Ministry of Interior and the Judiciary are more interested in prosecuting using security, media, and social campaigns. he head of the Supreme Judicial Council, Faiq Zaidan, ordered security and judicial services to preserve “public taste and morals”. He also specified how to fight those who offend citizens and state institutions by “taking strict legal actions against whoever commits such crimes in order to achieve public deterrence”.
However, the head of the Judicial Council did not define public taste or morals, nor did the state, which possesses “tools of legitimate violence”. Meanwhile, the head of the “security media cell” in the Ministry of Interior, Major-General Saaʿd Maaʿn, said on state television, “The reaction of the action’s witness determines whether or not the action offends public taste”.
He gave an example from his personal experience of the “criminal” case of Hassan Sajma, a young Iraqi man who was arrested, interrogated, prosecuted, and sentenced to two years of imprisonment in just five days.
The General began by describing Hassan Sajma’s social media content, saying that he could not comprehend the questions Hassan asked young men and women, he met in the streets regarding their opinion on certain issues. General Saaʿd Maaʿn seemed deeply disgusted by Hassan Sajma’s “low-quality content”, as per his description.
It did not help Hassan that he posted a video apologising to everyone, his fans and haters, and admitting that he was wrong and deleting all his videos. Hundreds of Iraqi bloggers and YouTubers have done the same following a fierce campaign by the security services, religious leaders, and the vast majority of Iraqi TV channels, which accused these young men of every possible foreign conspiracy. Whenever the head of the security media cell appeared on a TV channel, he accused makers of “low-quality content” of receiving external funds from “foreign parties to target the Iraqi family”.
The return of the secret informant
What Hassan used to do, for which he was imprisoned for two years, is that he would ask young men and women questions, and they would answer telling of their dreams and wishes, sometimes giving an unexpected answer. Usually, these simple answers stirred up the stagnant waters of religious and cultural traditions. In any case, these thoughts of youth crushed by wars are seen by the authorities, religious leaders, and tribes as “low-quality content”, promoting vice and destroying society.
In one of his videos, Hassan Sajma asks a teenage girl, “Does washing dishes bother you?” to which she replies, “Of course! We are not born to wash dishes and clean the house. Now they want to teach me to cook! I advise every girl to wash dishes at night so she can avoid her mother’s scolding in the morning”. He meets another girl and asks about the man of her dreams; she tells him, “he must own a Kawasaki motorcycle”. In another video, he asks a girl about “the dry thing that gets wet when put in the mouth”, which could be anything, like food, which is dry till it is put into the mouth. Interestingly, Hassan says at the end of each video, “This was her opinion, but what do you think? Let me know in the comments”. His content stimulated discussion despite its simplicity.
Article 403 of Penal Code No. 111 stipulates that “any person who produces, imports, publishes, possesses, obtains or translates a book, printed or other written material, drawing, picture, film, symbol or other thing that violates public integrity or decency with intent to exploit or distribute such material is punishable by a period of detention not exceeding 2 years plus a fine not exceeding 200 dinars or by one of those penalties. The same penalty applies to any person who advertises such material or displays it in public or sells, hires or offers it for sale or hire, even though it is not in public, or to any person who distributes or submits it for distribution by any means. If the offence is committed with intent to deprave, it is considered to be an aggravating circumstance”.
Then Article 404 follows: “Any person who himself or through some mechanical means sings or broadcasts in a public place obscene or indecent songs or statements is punishable by a period of detention not exceeding one year or by a fine not exceeding 100 dinars”.
Similar to the use of “secret informants” common under the Baʿath Party and Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Ministry of Interior launched an online platform called “Report”. It allows people to report “low-quality content” in society so that security services arrest those who are reported. The platform also allows the reporter to add the person’s home address and other details, similar to the reports filed by the secret informants of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
In the first days of the launch of the platform, 90,000 reports were filed, and social media exploded with campaigns inciting against bloggers and YouTubers. Among those who participated in the campaign were artists, politicians, religious leaders, journalists, state officials, security personnel, militias, and tribal leaders.
A presenter of a morning TV programme appeared extremely happy and thankful to the Ministry of Interior for “striking fear into the hearts of these bloggers and making them disappear from the scene as if they were being chased”. She was enthusiastic while asking citizens to report and help security services arrest such bloggers. The official TV channel Al-ʿIraqiyah considered that reporting producers of “low-quality content” charity work and accused these content creators of “receiving money from abroad to destroy society”.
In Maysan Governorate in southern Iraq, known to be one of Iraq’s poorest governorates where forty-two per cent of the population is trapped in poverty, a construction worker there named ʿAbboud Sakiba became a star on TikTok. ʿAbboud, who does not speak English, posted content singing in an American accent, which he mastered through watching television. He did not complete his education and is his family’s only provider, but he did not think that singing humorously would land him in prison.
An arrest warrant was issued against ʿAbboud Sakiba on charges of providing “low-quality content” based on Article 403 of Penal Code No. 111. When ʿAbboud posted a video, scared, wondering why spontaneous singing would be associated with low-quality content, his house in which he lives with the seven members of his family appeared behind him. It was not a house, but a roofless structure covered with metal sheets (corrugated zinc). ʿAbboud vented about his living conditions, the most minor of which was when winter came and the roof collapsed on them while they all slept in one room.
Since 2003, authorities began to strengthen their legislative arsenal with laws that protect their survival in a new form designed by the American occupation, which replaced the one-person and one-party rule with the hierarchical representation of sects and nationalism. There are Shiite, Sunnis, Kurds and other minorities represented by political blocs with leaders sharing power and resources by controlling the legislative, executive, and judicial authorities and protecting their power by exploiting and monopolising them.
In July 2011, parliament presented the first reading of the “cybercrime” bill, which Human Rights Watch described as “a poorly drafted law with brutal penalties that violate the rights of fair litigation procedures and freedom of expression”. The bill was suspended later due to public rejection, but the Coordination Framework government revitalised a vote on it. Its articles include a penalty for “life imprisonment” for whoever uses the Internet “to harm the country’s reputation” or to “publish or broadcast misleading news with the aim of discrediting the electronic financial system, electronic financial or commercial documents, or other things of this sort, or to spread financial distrust in the state”, (Article 6.3).
Based on this law, the Media and Communications Commission (a government institution) issued a regulation to organise digital content in Iraq, which prohibits “insulting the state or its public authorities, or natural or legal persons in Iraq” and criminalising “insulting or harming the Prophets, Messengers, Imams, religious authorities, and Religious Symbols”.
Translated from Arabic by Mariam Morsy
Published in collaboration with Jummar