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Iraqi security forces fire on protesters, killing 2

by QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA and ABBY SEWELL The Associated Press | December 8, 2022 at 4:02 a.m.
FILE - Protesters chant slogans against Iran in Tahrir Square during anti-government demonstrations in Baghdad, Iraq, Dec. 26, 2019. Hayder al-Zaidi, an Iraqi activist, was sentenced Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, to three years in prison over alleged criticism of state-sanctioned militias, spurring criticism from human right monitors and local activists. Al-Zaidi, who was active in popular anti-government protests that began in October 2019, was sentenced in a criminal court in Baghdad over comments on Twitter that he maintains he did not write. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, File)

BAGHDAD -- At least two protesters were killed Wednesday in southern Iraq after security forces opened fire on a crowd demonstrating against a harsh prison sentence handed down against a young Iraqi activist over a Twitter post, local officials said.

Hundreds of protesters took to the streets in the city of Nasiriyah after a court ruling this week sentencing Hayder Hamid al-Zaidi, 20, to three years in prison over alleged criticism of state-sanctioned militias.

Security forces opened fire to disperse the protesters, killing two and injuring 17, according to a high-ranking local government source and a medical source, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media about the matter.

Following the incident, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, who also serves as commander in chief of the army, called a meeting of the Ministerial Council for National Security, which ordered formation of a committee to investigate the circumstances of the shooting, the official Iraqi News Agency said. Interior Minister Abdul Amir al-Shammari directed the police chief of the Dhi Qar governate, where Nasiriyah is located, to be replaced.

Zaidi, 20, who was active in popular anti-government protests that began in October 2019, was sentenced Monday in a criminal court in Baghdad over comments on Twitter that he maintains he did not write. He had been charged under a penal code section that outlaws publicly insulting any government institution or official.

The tweet in question, posted in January on Zaidi's account, included a picture of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of mostly Shiite paramilitary groups. It mocked his designation as a "martyr" by many in Iraq and described him as an "agent spy."

Muhandis was killed in a U.S. strike in January 2020 that also killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's elite Quds Force.

Zaidi was arrested over the tweet in June and released after 16 days on bail. He has maintained that his account was hacked.

Human Rights Watch deputy Middle East director Adam Coogle said in a statement, "Regardless of who posted the Twitter message, the Iraqi justice system should not be used as a tool to suppress peaceful criticism of the authorities or armed actors."

Print Headline: Iraqi security forces fire on protesters, killing 2

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