Hisham al Hashimi
A Critic Silenced and a Legacy Born
by Sofia Barbarani
Iraq’s brittle culture of free speech has again been exposed with the murder of leading analyst, Hisham al Hashimi, on 06 July. The 47 year-old was shot dead by unidentified gunmen outside his family home in Baghdad’s Zayouna neighbourhood and pronounced dead at a hospital soon after. News of his death spread fast, sending a wave of grief and anger across his community and underscoring the decades-old perils faced by Iraq’s vocal critical thinkers.
No group or individual claimed responsibility for the assassination of the father-of-four, but for most Iraq observers the blame lies in the country’s rogue militia groups, specifically Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia. The researcher had recently highlighted the impunity with which these groups operate in Iraq and received threats from them. In a country where civilians have faced torture and even death for challenging groups like Kataeb Hezbollah, Hashimi’s murder could mark a further descent into the depths of self-censorship at a time when voices like his are paramount in the struggle for democracy.
‘We Might Call You in at Any Time’
The violent stifling of opposing views is not a recent phenomenon in Iraq, where for more than two decades citizens moved cautiously under the watchful eye of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service. The system that was put in place after the fall of the dictator’s regime in 2003 failed in a myriad of ways, including in its ability to uphold and protect free speech. Almost three hundred journalists and media workers were murdered in Iraq between 2003 and 2020, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. And, more than 500 protesters were recently killed by security forces linked to the same militias that are widely thought to have murdered Hashimi.
In June this year, Human Rights Watch released a 42-page report outlining the spike in violations of the right to free expression in Iraq. The report – ‘We might call you in at any time’ – is a harrowing dive into the attacks, threats and arrests suffered by twenty one activists and fourteen journalists between 2018 and 2020. In it, Senior Crisis and Conflict Researcher, Belkis Wille, brings to light government and militia attempts to silence critics.
Like the hundreds of demonstrators killed this year for speaking out against Iran’s meddling in Iraq, Hashimi’s researched analyses of the country’s militias sparked anger among Iran-backed groups. The question, said Wille of Human Rights Watch, “is whether to consider the murder of Hashimi as an extension of Iraq’s reality, or a turning point, into something darker…He spoke out publicly but in a measured and well researched fashion,” Wille said. That someone like that would become “a target to be silenced, will have a huge impact on the extent to which others might stick their necks out.”
Before shifting his focus to the role of Iraq’s militias, Hashimi rose to prominence as one of the country’s foremost experts on all matters relating to ISIS. His unparalleled understanding of the group helped frame and consolidate the work of countless journalists, US troops and both foreign and local officials, including Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi and President Barham Saleh.
For years he cultivated and maintained contacts in high-reaching corners of Iraq’s elite. Now, as the dust begins to settle on his murder, one of the realisations is that rubbing shoulders with officials and politicians may have contributed to his killing. Like a double-edged sword, his role as an advisor to the president and his ties to the prime minister should have offered him protection, instead, they merely fuelled the ire of his killers.
For some the brazen murder of someone of his stance means there is little hope for those who want to engage in a meaningful dialogue about the country’s state of affairs but have little in the way of powerful connections. This will continue to be the case so long as Prime Minister Kadhimi and his new government are unable to rein in Iran’s brutish militias.
Kadhimi, who blamed the murder of Hashimi on lawless armed groups, said in a statement that he would arrest and prosecute the killers. But if the prime minister’s failed attempt to arrest fourteen Kataeb Hezbollah militiamen in June is anything to go by, bringing Hashimi’s murderers to justice may be an overly ambitious undertaking for Iraq’s new leader.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, researcher Renad Mansour said of his friend and colleague: He was very close to the prime minister, he was very close to the president. He was seen as part of the establishment in that regard … so many would have thought, and he himself at some point would have thought, that he would be more untouchable than many of the other activists who had been targeted.”
Over the years Hashimi had become not only a key source of information for Iraq watchers, but a point of reference for his country’s youth. He took time to advise young activists and protesters, sometimes warning them to tread carefully in their battles for justice. In a symbol of gratitude, and perhaps a sign of resistance, a procession of colourful tuk-tuks – made famous for their role in the Iraqi uprising – drove by Hashimi’s home. “Hisham was their number one supporter,” Irfa Sawkat Editor Rasha al Aqeedi tweeted.
He also encouraged them, and their diaspora counterparts, to engage in the country’s political journey. For some in the diaspora community, his death dampened any hope of returning home. “Him [sic] pushing me to go and work for the government and to make a change really gave me hope and I could finally see that light at the end of the tunnel that so many Iraqis have been searching for,” said one diaspora Iraqi. “With him gone, I don’t know who can replace that … he was the one supporting us, no one else did.” Before adding: “We have to keep up the fight, it’s what he would have wanted.”
Hashimi’s work left no stone unturned, he was as critical of Iraq’s rogue militias as he was of the political class and its endemic corruption. In April, he kindly lent his time and knowledge to inform me personally on Hezbollah’s man in Iraq, Mohammad Kawtharani – he deciphered complex political dynamics with enviable ease.
On 07 July a wake was held in his neighbourhood in Baghdad, and his body was laid to rest in the holy city of Najaf. The outpouring of grief is just a small testament of the legacy he leaves behind. In a beautiful tribute, long-time Iraq watcher Christine van den Toorn encapsulates the essence of a man she knew as a friend:
He wanted to see citizens empowered, communities united, good governance and the end of corruption, lawlessness and militia violence. He wanted a better life for all Iraqis. If that comes to pass, that would be real justice served.
13 July 2020