Newspaper editor seized in Iraq; whereabouts unknown

New York, April 22, 2010The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Iraqi authorities to clarify the disappearance and current whereabouts of Saad al-Aossi, editor-in-chief of the critical weekly Al-Shahid.

Armed men entered al-Aossi’s home in central Baghdad on the morning of April 14, seized his computer and took him to an unknown location, according to local and regional news reports. The identity of the armed men remains unclear; various news sources have described them as being a “mixed force“ consisting of police and military elements, belonging to the Baghdad Operations Command, or to a special security force attached to the prime minister’s office.

Colonel Qassem Atta, spokesperson for the Baghdad Operations Command, issued a statement today denying government involvement in al-Aossi’s kidnapping and stating that he is not in government custody.

Al-Aossi’s abduction from his home took place on the same day that military and police personnel conducted wide-ranging sweeps in multiple Iraqi cities of upward of 100 Iraqis under the pretext of a preventive anti-terror sweep, according to a report in the Qatar-based newspaper Al-Arab that quotes an unnamed Iraqi police official. The same unnamed source stated that many of the detained individuals are vocal supporters of Ayad Alawi, a political opponent of the prime minister. Al-Aossi has regularly criticized the prime minister’s performance in his columns.

“We are deeply concerned about the safety of Saad al-Aoosi,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem. “The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must clarify the circumstances of his seizure by men reportedly belonging to the security forces, and account immediately for his whereabouts.”

Iraq is currently embroiled in a political stalemate as the country’s electoral commission begins to manually recount disputed votes cast six weeks ago in legislative elections. Challenger Alawi’s party enjoys a narrow lead of two seats over the incumbent al-Maliki.

Al-Aossi’s disappearance came only days after he published an April 8 article criticizing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for his lack of transparency in filling high-level official positions.

Ziad al-Ajili, head of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, a local press freedom group, told CPJ that the authorities have on several occasions shut down Al-Shahid, most recently on February 2 when police officers entered the weekly’s offices, seized all equipment and ordered the staff to leave the premises. The paper reopened two weeks later.