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Arrest warrants for Iraq journalists over fabricated WHO report

One the paper's Baghdad correspondents announced his resignation in protest [AFP]

Date of publication: 24 November, 2016

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Arrest warrants have been issued for two Iraq correspondents with Asharq al-Awsat after the Saudi newspaper ran a fabricated report accusing Shia pilgrims of sexually harassing Iraqi women.

A Baghdad court has issued arrest warrants for two correspondents with a Saudi newspaper over a false news report accusing Shia pilgrims of sexually harassing Iraqi women.

The warrants, based on the penal code's article 372 on religious hate crimes, were issued against the Asharq al-Awsat daily's two Baghdad-based Iraqi journalists, a senior source in Iraq's judiciary told AFP on Wednesday.

Published on Sunday in the London-based pan-Arab newspaper, the report quoted a World Health Organisation spokesperson as saying that after last year's pilgrimage more than 169 Iraqi women became pregnant out of wedlock.

It caused an uproar in Iraq, where the prime minister and several other prominent figures issued public condemnations.

The UN's health agency said the "claim that this information was released by a WHO headquarters communications officer is completely erroneous".

The London-based daily paper published the WHO statement on Monday in what it said was evidence of "its commitment towards the truth... and to correct the erroneous information contained in (Sunday's) report".

Asharq al-Awsat also said it fired the responsible Iraq correspondent, who was not named.

"We also announce that we have stopped cooperating with the newspaper's correspondent in Baghdad responsible for the report because he did not respect professional and ethical norms," it said.

One of the two correspondents, Hamza Mustafa, denied any responsibility for the article and announced he was resigning in protest.

"I announce my resignation... after having asked them to identify the correspondent responsible for the false report," he said on his Facebook page.

The report quoted a World Health Organisation spokesperson as saying that after last year's pilgrimage more than 169 Iraqi women became pregnant out of wedlock.

Another journalist working for the newspaper in Baghdad, Maad Fayyad, in a statement obtained by AFP, said he had nothing to do with the controversial article.

"I am innocent... and those who know me... know it would be impossible for me to resort to such things," said Fayyad.

Ziad Ajili, from the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, issued a statement condemning the warrants as an "incitement to murder".

The pair's whereabouts were unclear on Wednesday.

Salman al-Dosary, the newspaper's editor-in-chief, was replaced by prominent journalist Ghassan Charbel on Wednesday, amid speculations attributing his resignation to the fake report crisis.

However, sources speaking to The New Arab said he resigned two weeks ago after 12 years as editor-in-chief due to his continuous opposition to several issues within the institution.

The article was published on Arbaeen, a Shia Muslim pilgrimage that commemorates the 680 AD death of Imam Hussein.

The gathering is one of the world's largest religious events, which takes place in the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala.

This year's event culminated on Monday, with officials expecting the number of visitors to total 17 to 20 million visitors.

Agencies contributed to this report

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