The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of Iraq on 2 February 2022. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, during which time the Government was expected to respond. The Government did not respond during this period, and any reply, if sent, will be available on the UN communications database.
This is a shorter version of the original communication.
Topic: the arrest and detention of human rights defender and activist Mr Ammar Al-Helfi.
Mr Ammar Al-Helfi is a human rights defender, activist and protester who has been taking part in demonstrations since the start of demonstrations in Basra in July 2018 to protest widespread power outages in Baghdad and the country’s southern provinces. In many of his Facebook posts he was critical of corruption in Basra, including oil revenues, education, as well as poor health conditions. Moreover, he called for the resignation of the director of the Health Directorate in Basra (posted on 18 December 2021). In a second Facebook post (posted on 18 December 2021), he blamed the governor of Basra for the poor conditions of one of the girls’ school in Basra. In a later Facebook post, which he apparently posted while he was taken into custody, he wrote “My brothers: they arrested me and are taking me to the intelligence. Please stand by me.”.
On 19 December 2021, Mr. Ammar Al-Helfi was reportedly arrested by intelligence agents in Basra, for allegedly having incited demonstrations. Basra Police command confirmed the arrest of the activist and added that he was arrested under the Anti-Terrorism Law, nr. 13 (2005) and he was consequently put into the custody of the Intelligence Directorate in Basra. Information received indicates that this charge was withdrawn and replaced with another charge under Article 342 (“Arson”) of the Iraqi Penal Code No.111 of 1969.
He was arrested while receiving his national identity card in Basra center by two people in civilian clothes, claiming to be from the intelligence services and without an arrest warrant.
On 19 December 2021, the father of Mr. Al-Helfi and his friends went to the Basra Police Command and asked about his whereabouts, but did not get any clarification on his arrest. In the evening of the same day, the lawyer of Mr. Al-Helfi visited the police headquarters and tried to verify the charges against him and to visit his client, but was not allowed to enter and was informed that Mr. Al-Helfi’s case file is with the investigative officer while that officer was on leave that day. The family and friends of Mr. Al-Helfi also went to the Basra Intelligence Department and were informed that he was not in the building.
On 28 December, Mr. Ammar Al-Hefi was transferred from the detention center of the Intelligence Directorate in Basra to the detention center of the Anti-Crime Directorate, due to security concerns, as Mr. Ammar Al Hefi has reportedly been threatened within detention by other inmates.
On 30 December, Mr. Al-Helfi was brought before the investigative judge in Basra where a new charge (“Theft” – article 444 of the Iraqi Penal Code, nr.111 (1969)) was added to his previous charges. As a result, the investigative judge extended his pre-trial detention to 7 January 2022 to complete the investigation. On 31 December, information was received that Mr. Ammar Al-Hefi has been admitted to the hospital for treatment, due to his deteriorating health condition in detention.
Eventually, Mr. Al Hefi was released on bail on 10 January 2022 and is currently awaiting trial. A date for a hearing has not been specified yet.
In the communication we expressed our concerns about the alleged arbitrary nature of the arrest of Mr. Al-Helfi, which appears to be in relation to his exercising of his right to freedom of expression online to criticise local government and its policies. As is well established, the arbitrary arrest of a person for exercising their right to freedom of expression is incompatible with international human rights law and standards. We express further serious concerns given that the Basra police command has an established history of torture. Finally, we remain concerned about the physical and psychological integrity of Mr. Al-Helfi.