By Ali Al-Bassam
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East
BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraq released 335 prisoners held under anti-terrorism laws as a goodwill gesture to Sunni Muslim demonstrators who have been protesting against Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki for the last three weeks.
Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Shahristani announced their release during a ceremony that was held at a Baghdad prison last Monday. The ceremony itself was attended by dozens of freed prisoners, both male and female, who then shook hands with Shahristani after his speech. It was at the ceremony where Shahristani apologized “on behalf of the Iraqi state” to those prisoners who suffered a prolonged detention. “I, and the committee, will follow up all the cases to accelerate the release of the prisoners who are freed or completed the sentence,” said Shahristani, who heads the committee formed to look into the Sunni protesters’ demands.
Officials declined to provide statistics over how many prisoners had finished their jail terms and how many had been detained without being formally charged. An AFP journalist who was present for the mass release said that a number of old men and women were among the prisoners freed. “This is a good step,” said Mehdi Saleh, a prisoner who was held without charges since 2009. “We were really desperate to be released,” he said.
For three weeks, Sunni demonstrators had assembled in Iraq’s Anbar province and other predominately Sunni regions to protest alleged discrimination. Sunni leaders claim that the anti-terrorsim law was used to unfairly target and arrest Sunnis. Aside from the demand to release prisoners held under the anti-terrorism law, protesters had made other demands, some of which are considered extreme. They range from calls for Maliki to resign, to ending the campaign to track down former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party.
Thousands of protesters are still in Anbar, and do not feel that their demands were adequately met. “This is not enough. We didn’t ask for a gesture or a gift for the people. We want to give people their rights,” said Jaber Al-Jaberi, a lawmaker who represents the Sunni-backed Iraqiya block. The protests began on December 23, when officials arrested 9 members of Sunni Finance Minister Rafa Al-Essawi’s security team on terrorism charges. Tensions have been high for both the demonstrators and government officials since the start of the protests, and Maliki has even threatened to direct security forces to forcibly intervene.
Since Hussein’s fall in 2003, many Iraqi Sunnis felt that they have been discriminated since the Shi’ite majority took power. Since then, Iraq’s government, comprised of Shi’ite, Sunni, and ethnic Kurds, have struggled to cooperate together in rebuilding Iraq.
For further information please see:
Al Arabiya — Iraq Frees Hundreds of Detainees to Appease Protesters — 14 January 2013
Al Jazeera — Iraq Releases Hundreds of Prisoners — 14 January 2013
BBC News — Hundreds of Prisoners Released in Iraq — 14 January 2013
Kurdish Globe — Iraq Says it Freed Hundreds of Inmates — 14 January 2013
Reuters — Iraq Frees Prisoners in Gesture to Ease Sunni Protests — 14 January 2013