BAGHDAD: Arrest warrants have been issued for the judge who convicted Saddam Hussein and a journalist critical of the government for allegedly libelling Iraq's premier, a watchdog and the judge said Sunday.
Warrants were issued last month for Munir Haddad and Sarmad al-Taie, apparently for criticising Nuri al-Maliki, under an article of the criminal code that prohibits defaming or insulting government employees.
A local press watchdog said the warrant for Taie, who writes a regular column for the Al-Mada newspaper and is a frequent guest on television current affairs programmes, was the first against a journalist since the US-led invasion in 2003.
Maliki's spokesman declined to confirm the premier's office had filed the case.
Haddad, who sentenced Saddam Hussein to death in 2006 and is now a private lawyer, turned himself in last week after being told of the warrant. He was subsequently released on bail.
"The person who filed a case against me was Nuri al-Maliki, accusing me of libel," Haddad said, telling AFP the original warrant was issued on January 8.
"I did not attack him, I was just practising my freedom of expression by criticising the government's performance... I am not against the prime minister, I am not his competitor, I do not have any political allegiance, I do not want to replace him, and I do not want to be in the government."
Haddad gave no details on the specific comments he made to trigger the accusation, and did not say when he would next appear in court.
Another warrant was issued for Taie, according to Ziad al-Ajili, head of the Baghdad-based Journalism Freedom Observatory.
"The government has filed a legal case against Sarmad al-Taie because of the opinions he expressed on television," Ajili told AFP, adding the warrant was apparently the first issued against a reporter since Saddam's overthrow.
"This is far away from international standards of freedom of opinion and expression."
Maliki's spokesman Ali Mussawi declined to say whether or not the premier had initiated the legal case, but said: "Maliki is like any citizen. He goes to the courts to defend his rights. What is the problem?"
"This is a boost for the judiciary. Everybody, even the prime minister, is subject to the law."
Iraq is routinely criticised for its poor record on media rights -- it frequently scores towards the bottom of press freedom rankings, and ranks first in the Committee to Protect Journalists' Impunity Index, which tracks unsolved murders of journalists.