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Iraq: Journalist Ali Abdel Zahra recounts abduction days before elections

Ali Abdel Zahra tells MEE of his experience after being abducted by unknown captors days before Iraq headed to the polls
Ali Abdel Zahra, a freelance journalist, spoke to Middle East Eye about his kidnapping ordeal (MEE/Alex MacDonald)
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Baghdad

Ali Abdel Zahra was walking home through Baghdad's sprawling Sadr City district on Thursday evening, carrying food home to his wife and two children.

Suddenly an SUV pulled up besides him and asked him if he was "Mr Ali".

"[It] was weird because it was late at night and people who know me call me 'Ali'," he said, speaking to Middle East Eye in Iraq's capital on Tuesday evening.

'The way they did things made me think they were professionals, kidnapping me like that without a weapon'

- Ali Abdel Zahra, journalist

The men described themselves as being from the intelligence services, and said they wanted to ask him some questions.

Abdel Zahra asked to see their ID. As they produced a badge and he leaned in closer to take a look, two men grabbed his arms from behind and pushed him into the car.

One man shoved a rag with chemicals into his face and he passed out.

"The way they did things made me think they were professionals, kidnapping me like that without a weapon," Abdel Zahra said.

The Iraqi journalist would spend the next two days strapped to a chair blindfolded, interrogated and threatened by unknown captors about his work as a journalist for Deutsche Welle and other outlets.

Abdel Zahra was released on Saturday, just hours before polls were set to open for Iraq's parliamentary elections, as security was supposedly tightened across the country.

Speaking about the incident for the first time, Abdel Zahra said he feared that the situation for journalists in Iraq - already a deeply risky profession - would only deteriorate as the country hung on the edge of "civil war" following the contested election results made public on Monday.

'Hello, Joker'

Abdel Zahra said he was interrogated by two men.

"As soon as they entered, the first thing they said was 'hello, Joker'", he explained, a term used by some in Iraq to describe supporters of the anti-government protests that sparked off in October 2019.

Photos and memes circulated at that time of protesters wearing make-up like that of the title character of the Joker movie.

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The interrogators accused him of being linked to the popular comedian and online video host Ahmed Albasheer, whose videos are hosted on Deutsche Welle's platform.

Abdel Zahra said he tried to figure out the identity of his captors.

"I could hear an echo so I knew I was in a big empty building," he explained. "I could hear machines working. I knew that they weren't intelligence services, so the first thing I thought was that I was going to get killed, so I had to be strong and face them."

The men said that he had been "targeting" them with his journalism.

"I said: 'Well let me know who you are so I know if I am targeting you or not,'" Abdel Zahra recounted. "He [the interrogator] said I knew very well who they were."

The interrogators then played a recording of a report he had made for Deutsche Welle's Arabic service about the February 2021 shelling of Erbil airport, in which Abdel Zahra referred to the threat of "uncontrolled weapons" in Iraq.

"See, you're targeting us," said one of the captors.

"I said: 'I wasn't targeting you...if you are from the resistance axis, then the leaders of this axis, they themselves criticised this shelling,'" Abdel Zahra reportedly replied, referring to pro-Iran groups in Iraq.

After accusing the journalist of not cooperating, Abdel Zahra's captors left him alone for hours, with one of the men promising to "discipline" him later.

'Any party can kidnap any journalist at any moment'

- Mustafa Saadoun, Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights

The men later interrogated him about his work for Al-Nahar Foundation for Culture and Media, an Iraqi journalism NGO, and the foundation's head Hassan Jumaa. 

The captors also reportedly asked Abdel Zahra about his work on the elections and why, as a journalist, he seemed to "target certain candidates". They also accused him of "working against the country".

"He said: 'It seems like you don't value your life'," Abdel Zahra recounted one of his interrogators as saying.

"At this point I wasn't even going to try and play games, because the threats were dangerous."

Daily threats of abduction

For journalists in Iraq, the threat of kidnapping has been a daily reality since the 2003 US-led invasion that overthrew former President Saddam Hussein.

Though media outlets flourished in the aftermath of Saddam's highly censorious rule, the rise of armed non-state actors and paramilitary groups saw scores of journalists being abducted and killed.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 190 journalists have been killed in Iraq since 1992.

Mustafa Saadoun, the director of the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights, said that the disappearance of journalists across the country had become commonplace.

"Security is unsustainable for journalists. Any party can kidnap any journalist at any moment," he told MEE.

"Iraq is not a safe place for journalists."

Mourners carry the coffin of Yussef Sattar, a local journalist who was reportedly killed while covering anti-government demonstrations, during his funeral in the capital Baghdad in January 2020 (AFP)
Mourners carry the coffin of Yussef Sattar, a local journalist who was reportedly killed while covering anti-government demonstrations, during his funeral in the capital Baghdad in January 2020 (AFP)

Since the beginning of the October 2019 anti-government protests against corruption, unemployment, foreign interference and the unaccountable power of armed groups, hundreds of people have been killed by security forces, or assassinated, abducted and tortured by non-state armed groups.

Journalists affiliated with or sympathetic to the protest movement, which has been heavily critical of the established parties and political class, have been specifically targeted.

In July, prominent opposition journalist Ali al-Mikdam was also abducted from a street in Baghdad's Karrada district after writing an article critical of the influence of armed groups in the country.

He was found alive a day later with marks of torture on his body.

Abdel Zahra said he told his captors that if they killed him, then his family would at least have been able to benefit from a salary from the Foundation of Martyrs and Iraqi Journalists Syndicate - a far more reliable income than he currently enjoys as a freelance journalist.

His kidnappers fed him drugged soup, telling him that they had "prepared a death for him" that would "suit" him.

Eventually though, they took him back to Sadr City and dumped him on a street, holding his head down throughout so he could not identify his captors, Abdel Zahra said.

Despite this difficult experience, Abdel Zahra noted that he received less physical abuse from his captors than he had previously faced from police in Baghdad while covering demonstrations.

He said that before releasing him, they told him he was not a "direct target" but that he was a "possible" target and should not allow himself to become a direct target.

"I said 'God willing'," Abdel Zahra recounted.

'Coup' accusations

The results for Sunday's elections have been released steadily over several days and seem to show a major victory for the movement of Shia Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr - though the majority of Iraqis simply stayed away from the polling booths.

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A number of other Shia parties have furiously denounced the results as "fabricated" and a "coup" organised by Sadr with the help of foreign powers.

A spokesperson for Kataib Hezbollah - an armed Iran-backed group labelled a terrorist organisation by the US - called for their supporters to oppose the results, and warned they would "stand firmly and insist to restore things to their rightful place". 

For Abdel Zahra, the election results suggest that the climate for journalism in Iraq - already at its worst ever, he said - would only decline further if the country descended into conflict between different parties from the establishment.

"We are heading for, possibly, a civil war," he predicted.

"All the armed groups have their political wings. They said 'Prepare, for we will defend our rights', even if it means violence and this will be worse for journalists."