A human rights film festival held in Baghdad is aiming to educate and mobilise citizens at a time when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government has been accused of sliding toward authoritarianism.
“Civil (society) has been destroyed in Iraq for many decades and people have no idea about their rights,” Kasim Abid, the director of the Baghdad Eye film festival, told AFP.
“Baghdad Eye is the first ever attempt … in Iraq using the art of cinema to raise awareness to help people understand the concept of human rights which has been published in the (UN) Universal Declaration (of Human Rights) and to spread these themes of the declaration,” Abid said.
The declaration was posted at the entrance to a hall at Baghdad University, where 11 documentaries, including five about Iraq, were being shown from February 25 to 28.
The festival focuses on three themes: women’s rights, the rights of children and youth, and the right to freedom of expression and opinion.
These are among the most urgent issues in Iraq, Abid said.
He referred to protests across Iraq calling for reforms on February 25 last year, in which 16 people were killed in clashes with security forces.
“The Iraqis are losing what they gained through all these seven or eight years,” he said, referring to the period following the 2003 US-led invasion that overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein.
“You cannot build a proper society without giving their rights to the women. It would be paralysed forever,” he said.
And “we need to make a campaign to put pressure on the government” to increase children’s rights, he added.
Criticism of the path the Iraqi government is taking has been leveled from a variety of quarters.
In January, Human Rights Watch said Iraq was falling back into authoritarianism and headed towards becoming a police state.
“Iraq cracked down harshly during 2011 on freedom of expression and assembly by intimidating, beating and detaining activists, demonstrators and journalists,” New York-based HRW said.
“Iraq is quickly slipping back into authoritarianism as its security forces abuse protesters, harass journalists and torture detainees,” Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director, said at the time.
Politicians have also directly criticised the Iraqi premier’s actions.
Independent Iraqi MP Sabah al-Saadi last year said Maliki was “acting in the same way as Saddam Hussein, through threatening by killing.”
Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak meanwhile has said that the premier was “worse than Saddam Hussein,” sparking a quest by Maliki to have Mutlak sacked.
And Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose bloc is a key member of Maliki’s unity government, last week joined in, referring to the premier in a statement as a “dictator” hungry for acclaim.
Kamil Hashim, a spokesman for the Ministry of Human Rights, who was present at the opening of the festival, said that criticism from rights groups on Iraq “contain exaggerations.”
But he did say that the festival is “one of the best ways to educate” the public on rights issues.
The president of the festival, former Iraqi culture minister Mufid al-Jazairi, said the government provided “moral support,” but “not financial support.”
The films shown at the festival included foreign documentaries such as “Enemies of Happiness,” which focuses on the struggle of a female Afghan politician, and “The Children of Leningradsky,” about street children in Moscow.
But due to still-frequent violence here, the film-makers were not invited.
The Baghdad Eye project was organised by the Iraqi Film and Television College and the Iraqi Cultural Support Association, with the help of Czech NGO “People in Need” and international organisations including the UN.
It will also be presented in other Iraqi cities.
“We have many themes to address, and all of them are connected to dignity,” said Oday Salah, the director of a documentary about a women’s prison in Baghdad titled “One Day in Kadhimiyah Prison.”
Under the current conditions, he said, “there is no dignity for the people in Iraq.”