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Hate campaign by Shiite party against newspaper journalist

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders is very concerned about an offensive launched by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), a Shiite political party, against the government newspaper "Al-Sabah" and its news editor, Ahmed Abd Al-Hussein, over an article he wrote for the 4 August 2009 issue blaming the ISCI for a major bank holdup on 28 July. Hussein has received death threats.

"This hate campaign and the calls for the death of Hussein, a well-known journalist, writer and poet, are unacceptable," Reporters Without Borders said. "The threats must stop at once. All Hussein did was expose a scandal involving public figures. The authorities must take the appropriate measures to protect this journalist and put a stop to this outrage."

Hussein's article accused the ISCI of being behind the holdup of a branch of the Al-Rafidin bank in the Baghdad district of Al-Zawiya on 28 July, in which eight security guards were killed. It was one of the biggest holdups since 2003, with a haul of nearly US$4 million. The alleged perpetrators, who were arrested three days later, included Capt. Jaafar Lazem, one of the bodyguards of Vice-President Adil Abd Al-Mahdi, an ISCI leader.

In a news conference, interior minister Jawad Al-Bolani stressed the holdup's underlying political motive without going into details.

Hussein's article said the ISCI had intended to use the holdup money to buy votes in next January's parliamentary elections. Several of the ISCI's rivals had accused it of distributing blankets in poor neighbourhoods in return for votes in last January's governorate council elections.

The ISCI immediately threatened to sue "Al-Sabah" and then, in a 7 August sermon relayed to all of the ISCI's mosques, one of the party's leaders, Sheikh Jalal Eddin Al-Saghir (a member of the commission that drafted the constitution in 2005), condemned the politicisation of the media, accused the government of manipulation and called for Hussein to be tried and put to death.

Saghir also announced that he would sue "Al-Sabah" and all the other media and websites that linked the party to the holdup, including opposition websites that support deposed President Saddam Hussein's Baath movement. An ISCI parliamentarian and militias that support the party also voiced direct threats against the journalist.

"Al-Sabah" has reacted by urging Iraq's highest-ranking Shiite religious leader, Ali Al-Sistani, to intervene in the controversy, while journalists and intellectuals took part in a rally organised on 10 August in Baghdad by the Union of Men of Letters and the Journalistic Freedom Observatory to protest against an increase in threats and attacks on freedom of opinion and expression in Iraq.

Hussein, who also edits the newspaper's arts and culture pages, has taken indefinite leave for family and health reasons, "Al-Sabah" editor-in-chief Falah Al-Michaal said. Pressure is being put on the newspaper's staff to prevent Hussein's return.

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