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Kidnapped in plain sight: What happened to Iraqi activist Saba al Mahdawi?

  • Bilge Nesibe Kotan
  • 8 Nov 2019

Some believe that those behind the killing of Iraqi influencer Tara Fares last year kidnapped Saba, while others are hesitant to put the blame on anyone in Iraq's ambiguous environment. But almost everyone agrees: she was targeted for her activism.

Saba al Mahdawi, Iraqi protester and medic pictured before her abduction on November 2, 2019. Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq . ( Twitter )

On November 1, 35-year-old Saba al Mahdawi arrived home in Baghdad with stories to tell her two brothers. She is an accountant, but since thousands of Iraqis began taking to the streets on October 1 in an attempt to take bring the government down, her day job had been providing volunteer medical assistance to wounded protesters. 

Sitting in the living room that evening, Ahmad and Yousef listened to her tales of the bloody scenes from hospitals and Tahrir square that she couldn’t forget.

The next evening, Saba never made it home. An hour after Yousef had spoken to her on the phone - and she had told him she would be home in an hour - he was still waiting. Word that she had been kidnapped spread rapidly among activist circles.

Her abduction didn’t make sense to both Yousef and Ahmad - but they are treating it as an abduction as there are eyewitness accounts that she was pulled into a car by masked men. 

“She wasn’t an activist before the protests. She never mentioned receiving treats. She wasn’t doing something different from other people,” Yousef told TRT World, over the phone. 

For Adam Shapiro, Head of Communications & Visibility at Front Line Defenders, an international human rights organisation based in Ireland, her recent activism is enough reason for her to stand out. He believes Saba was targeted.

“There have been others who have been abducted in the last month and it seems to be a pattern of targeting activists from the square, particularly people who are working to support the other people and protesters,” Shapiro said in a phone call.

Activists say that at least five other outspoken people, including a human rights lawyer from the city of Maysan, Ali Jaseb Hatab, have been kidnapped since October. Some believe the number is even higher. 

But the question of “kidnapped by who” remains unanswered. 

In Iraq, the political environment is ambiguous. The Iraqi army is dependent on Iran-affiliated militias - some of which have officially become a part of the military like the Hashd el Shaabi. 

These militias’ influence on Iraqi politics and the military has deepened especially after they helped the Iraqis defeat Daesh. Many Iraqis have been blaming them for crimes — both for many of the more than 300 killed during the protests and for kidnappings in the last year.

But in Saba’s case, the body of evidence to suggest what actually happened to her is thin. Activists say the men who kidnapped Saba had their faces covered, had two separate cars, and the plate number of at least one car is recorded by an eyewitness. For them, the silence from the Iraqi government makes them complicit.

For Front Line Defender’s Shapiro, it’s not easy put the blame on any group or the government as it’s hard to determine who exactly is behind the abduction. 

“There are many armed groups and many militias representing various factions. Some of the armed groups and militias have connections to the government officially. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the government itself was organising the abduction,” he said.

“The unclear political environment in Iraq means that you can get away with many things.”

But many Iraqi activists are determined not to let Saba’s abduction disappear into obscurity. 

Silencing women 

Last year, unknown assailants shot 22-year-old Tara Fares, a well known Iraqi model and social media personality, as part of a series of murders targeting prominent women including a women’s rights activist, Suad al Ali. None of the crimes has been solved. 

Activists and journalists that TRT World spoke to believe it was radical militiamen who killed Tara and the others, and that it is also them who have kidnapped Saba.

Lamyaa Alamri, an activist and writer working for the Center for the Protection of Iraqi Women Journalists, based in Baghdad, says a private investigator group has been looking into Saba’s abduction and they will be releasing their findings soon.

Tara wasn’t a political activist, but with millions of followers on Snapchat and Instagram, she was an influential figure who received death threats for her unapologetically liberal and glamorous lifestyle. 

One year before her, two other high profile Iraqi women, beauticians Rafif al Yasiri and Rasha al Hassan, were killed one week apart in mysterious circumstances. But Tara kept doing what she did despite death threats. Reports say Tara’s execution was professionally conducted.

Alamri claims that the men who kidnapped Saba, too, were professional and that they have obtained footage of Saba’s kidnapping on the main road close to her house, in plain sight.

“The investigations confirmed that the kidnappers were wearing some white uniforms and pursued her since her exit from Tahrir Square and then carried out the kidnapping and transferred her to areas east of Baghdad,” she says.

Ziya Hindi, a 29-year-old human rights activist from Baghdad, is also certain that it is the same militiamen at work. He says anyone behaving outside of their will is at risk of being targeted, whether they are models or protesters.

“Everyone knows this. Activists are now tracked down and hunted by the militiamen who want them to stop protesting. Some were killed in their homes,” Hindi said.

“The same militiamen who killed the influencers are killing the protesters now. These militiamen claim to be Islamic, but they have nothing to do with religion,” he added.

Sana, a journalist who wanted to protect her identity, has been following the case from the beginning. She is hesitant to place blame on a group or the government but for her, there is no doubt that these crimes are interdependent.

“Even if not in terms of the actor, in terms of purpose, they are targeting civil freedom in Iraq, they want to narrow the space of freedom and cultivate fear in everyone, especially women,” Sana said. 

Human rights organisations say Iraqi protesters, activists and journalists are increasingly being harassed, arrested and abducted. While the government has promised to investigate the killings, the mounting crimes keep being attributed to unidentified men along with security forces.

“If fear in previous years leads citizens, women, in particular, to refrain from expressing an opinion. Increasing collective consciousness leads us to further rejection of the way the country is now,” Sana said.

Since the beginning of the protests, an increasing number of women joining in the protests played a vital role in the front lines. 

For Shapiro, that’s why Saba’s disappearance carries special weight. 

“Targeting a young woman like Saba, who's known and active and who has been doing a lot to support the protesters is clearly an effort to undermine the participation of women in these protest movement in Iraq,” he said.

“We've seen in other popular uprisings in the region and the world — oftentimes the difference between a protest movement being successful or not successful is the extent of women’s participation.” 

Whoever killed social media influencer Tara last year, delivered a clear message. Some influencers decided to keep a low profile after her killing, while some decided to flee the country in fear. 

Saba’s brothers Yousef and Ahmad are not interested in guessing who might have wanted to silence her. They just keep hoping she’ll be back. Yousef participated in the protests before Saba disappeared, but his plan is now to keep going to the supermarket he works at when he wakes up instead of Tahrir square. 

“No one is saying anything to us. But regardless, I’m not planning to attend the protests anymore,” Yousef says. “Because I’m afraid.”

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