Iraqi Kurdistan: ‘Insulting’ Religion Bill Threatens Free Speech

Penalties Include 10-Year Prison Term, Closing of Media
June 22, 2012
(Erbil) – Members of Parliament in the Kurdistan Regional Government should oppose the Draft Law to Protect Sanctities because it clearly restricts the right to free expression, Human Rights Watch said today. The draft bill prescribes up to 10 years in prison and closing a publication for vaguely worded offenses such as “portraying the prophets inappropriately.”
In mid-May 2012, parliamentary officials announced that members of parliament had drafted the bill, and planned to present it for a vote “soon.” The announcement came after Chrpa (Whisper), an Erbil-based magazine, reprinted a Facebook posting that government officials characterized as “insults to the religion of Islam.” Police arrested the magazine’s editor on May 7 and a demonstration against the magazine gathered in Erbil on May 8.
“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.”
The draft law criminalizes “swearing at and mocking God” and “swearing at, mocking, insulting and portraying prophets inappropriately.” In addition to violating free expression rights, such broad wording is an invitation to arbitrary arrest and enforcement, Human Rights Watch said.
Under the bill, people found guilty of such offenses can face up to 10 years in prison and fines ranging from 10,000,000 Iraqi dinars (US$ 8,500) to 50,000,000 dinars (US$42,600). The bill would authorize officials to shut down for up to a year any media outlet that printed or otherwise disseminated prohibited statements as well as to impose fines in this range.
On May 2, Chrpa reprinted a 2010 Facebook post by Halmat Goran, a Kurdish resident of Norway, entitled “Me and God,” an imaginary discussion with God that included profanity. Police arrested Hemn Ari, Chrpa’s editor-in-chief, on May 7. A May 14 statement by the Erbil branch of the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate expressed concern that Ari’s arrest had been carried out under Iraq’s penal code, not the press law passed by the regional government in 2007, which governs media matters without closing down publications.
Local media reported that the demonstrations in Erbil against the magazine on the following day caused damage to nearby bars, a TV station, and a cultural center, and led to several arrests. Dozens of people were injured, the reports said, including eight policemen.
In the days that followed, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s prime minister, Nichirvan Barzani, and other officials criticized the article. According to media reports, Barzani said the government “will confront all insults against the religion of Islam strongly.” The deputy editor and staff of Chrpa then volunteered to close the magazine office, and Ari, the editor, was released on May 14.
On May 11, the chair of the regional parliament’s Committee for Religious Endowments and Religious Affairs, Bashir Khalil Haddad, announced the completion of the Draft Law to Protect Sanctities in the Kurdistan Region and said the committee would soon bring it before parliament. Several nongovernmental organizations, politicians, and independent newspapers have spoken out against the bill.
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.”
The draft bill, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, contains no criteria for distinguishing between permitted speech and speech that is “insulting,” “mocking,” or “swearing at” religious subjects, nor does it contain legal justifications for criminalizing any of them.Under international human rights law, a government may only ban limited types of speech such as that which immediately and directly incites violence. A government may not impose criminal sanctions for expressing thoughts or opinions merely because others, including government officials, deem them offensive
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) permits a government to restrict the right to freedom of expression to protect public morals only if the restriction conforms to strict tests of necessity and proportionality and is non-discriminatory, including on the grounds of religion or belief. The Human Rights Committee, which provides the definitive interpretation of the covenant, has stated that, “Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the covenant,” except in strictly limited circumstances such as direct incitement to violence.
“The combination of harsh prison sentences, fines, and media shutdowns for ill-defined offenses such as ‘insulting’ and ‘mocking’ is unmistakably chilling,” Stork said.