BAGHDAD: An Iraqi draft law that would jail web users for life for a variety of ill-defined crimes has been condemned by rights groups and activists who have slammed its vague language and hefty penalties.
Little more than a year after revolutions, in part sparked by Internet-based campaigns, rocked the Middle East and ousted several dictators, Human Rights Watch has warned the bill would "constitute serious curtailments" of Iraqis' freedoms, while activists have questioned many of the bill's provisions.
And while several MPs involved in writing the controversial law have said they will reconsider and soften the penalties, campaigners have said they will believe them only when they follow their words with action.
"We just do not have the culture of protecting users' freedoms, and of protecting freedom of information," an Iraqi activist and blogger who identifies himself as Hayder Hamzoz told AFP in an interview.
Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW, said in a statement: "This bill would give Iraqi authorities yet another tool to suppress dissent, especially on the Internet, which Iraqi journalists and activists increasingly turn to for information and open debate."
MPs defend the current draft of the bill by saying it was written at the height of Iraq's bloody sectarian war.
But while it may look to deter insurgents, its wide-ranging provisions apply to all sectors of society, in a country where Internet penetration was just 1.1 percent in 2010, according to the International Telecommunication Union.
The draft law stipulates jail terms of up to life imprisonment for "undermining the independence, unity, or safety of the country, or its supreme economic, political, military, or security interests," according to an HRW translation.
Similar punishments could be handed down if web users were found to be "participating, negotiating, promoting, contracting with, or dealing with a hostile entity in any way with the purpose of disrupting security and public order or endangering the country."
Life imprisonment is also a potential penalty for those guilty of "inflaming sectarian tensions or strife; disturbing security and the public order; or defaming the country" or "publishing or broadcasting false or misleading events for the purpose of weakening confidence in the electronic financial system, electronic commercial or financial documents, or similar things, or damaging the national economy and financial confidence in the state."
One article stipulates a one-year jail term for "any person who encroaches on any religious, moral, family, or social values or principles or the sanctity of private life using an information network or computer devices in any shape or form."
Another calls for a minimum three-year sentence for those who "disrupt intentionally the computers and the Internet devoted to the public interest, or damage or hinder their functions," according to a translation compiled by the Belgium-based Institute for International Law and Human Rights.
"Given the vagueness and breadth of these provisions, as well as the severity of the punishment for the violations, authorities could use the law to punish any expression that they claim constitutes a threat to some governmental, religious, or social interest," HRW said in a report Thursday.
The New York-based rights group warned that the law could also be used to "deter legitimate criticisms of or peaceful challenges to governmental or religious officials or policies."
It added: "Given the key role of information technology, devices, and networks in journalism and the dissemination of information and opinions, the proposed law poses a severe threat to independent media, whistleblowers and peaceful activists."
HRW warned that the draft law was "part of a broader pattern of restrictions on fundamental freedoms in Iraq, particularly freedom of expression, association, and assembly."
It called on Iraqi MPs to delay voting on the law until it was reformed to conform to international human rights standards, a call which some members of the three parliamentary committees working on the law have agreed with.
"Many things need to be changed, especially the punishments," said Ali Shlah from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law alliance and a member of the Culture Committee.
"When the law was written, insurgent groups used to broadcast their statements and news through the Internet, and it affected the security of the people," Shlah told AFP.
"Now things have changed and the government is in control, and the security situation is much better."
Shlah said he expected it would take six weeks to two months before the draft law was re-introduced to parliament.
But even with those assurances, Iraqi activists are unconvinced.
"For many laws before this, they (MPs) said they would not approve them, but when they went to vote, the laws were approved," said Hamzoz.
Asked if it would take actual reform of the draft law for him to finally be convinced, Hamzoz replied: "Yes."
"I do not believe them," he added.