Human Rights Watch challenges Iraqi religion Bill
Published 25 June 2012
Human Rights Watch has raised concern over legislation on religious expression being considered by the Kurdistan Regional Government.
The Draft Law to Protect Sanctities proposes punishment of up to 10 years in prison, hefty fines and closing down publications that are found guilty of “swearing at and mocking God” and “swearing at, mocking, insulting and portraying prophets inappropriately”.
The new law was first announced in May, following the arrest of the editor of Chrpa magazine after it reprinted a Facebook posting deemed by government officials to be "insults to the religion of Islam".
The posting in question was made to Facebook in 2010 by Halmat Goran, a Kurdish resident of Norway, and was an imaginary discussion with God that included profanity.
Chrpa editor Hemn Ari was arrested under the Iraqi penal code and not the press law passed by the regional government in 2007, which governs media matters without closing down publications.
His arrest was accompanied by demonstrations against the magazine in which dozens were reportedly injured.
The article was criticised by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s prime minister, Nichirvan Barzani, and other officials. According to media reports, Barzani said the government “will confront all insults against the religion of Islam strongly”.
Days later, the chair of the regional parliament’s Committee for Religious Endowments and Religious Affairs announced the completion of the draft law and plans to bring it before parliament soon.
Human Rights Watch said the draft law clearly restricts the right to free expression, while its broad wording is "an invitation to arbitrary arrest and enforcement".
“This Bill flies in the face of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s carefully cultivated image of a political authority that respects civil liberties,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“International law protects speech that others might find offensive so long as it does not openly threaten violence.”
Aram Qadir, head of the Kurdistan Islamic Group in parliament and a supporter of the Bill, told Human Rights Watch that it “would not place Islam over other faiths, because it applies to other religions, too”.
He also claimed that the Bill “would not restrict speech questioning or even critical of religions and religious books, but only insults against them.”
However, Human Rights Watch said the Bill contained no clear criteria to define speech that is “insulting,” “mocking,” or “swearing at” religious subjects.
“The combination of harsh prison sentences, fines, and media shutdowns for ill-defined offenses such as ‘insulting’ and ‘mocking’ is unmistakably chilling,” Stork said.