“I have lived the last three days in a state of terror,” he wrote in a post on his Facebook page Thursday morning. “There are some who call me and warn me of raids and arrests of protesters. There is someone saying that the government will do this and that. There is someone with a fake name coming on to Facebook to threaten me.”
Hours later, Mahdi was found dead in his home, with two gunshot wounds to the head.
It was unclear Friday who had killed Mahdi or why. But his death sparked fears among journalists and activists that as U.S. troops leave the country, Iraq’s ruling class is turning to some chillingly familiar tactics to silence dissent.
Despite the constitutionally enshrined right to free speech that came following the overthrow of longtime dictator Saddam Hussein, threats and violence toward those who publicly challenge the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appear to be on the rise.
“I think Iraq is at a crossroads, with the Americans leaving,” said Samer Muscati, director of Iraq research for Human Rights Watch. “The signs of authoritarianism are quite disturbing.”
Maliki’s government had no comment on Mahdi’s death and has denied intimidating dissenters. But the primary opposition group in parliament, Iraqiya, on Friday demanded a full investigation into the killing. The bloc, led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, condemned the crime as a “desperate attempt at muzzling and to bring Iraq back to the republic of repression, fear and despotism.”
A spokesman for the government’s Baghdad Operations Command said Mahdi’s death was a “regular criminal case” and would be investigated by police.
The small community of Iraqi journalists and activists in and around Baghdad grieved Mahdi’s death Friday — and were chilled with fear. Mahdi is the seventh journalist to be killed in Iraq this year.
“We all feel we may have the same end — like Hadi,” said Dhikra Sarsam, a local journalist and a friend of the slain talk show host.
On his radio program, “To Whoever Listens,” Mahdi, 45, had loudly criticized Iraqi politicians of every stripe, including Maliki and Allawi. Mahdi had a flair for the dramatic and often used humor to poke fun at local leaders and their corrupt ways. Maliki loyalists had often complained about Mahdi’s views to the radio station that aired the thrice-weekly program, supporters said.
When the spirit of the Arab Spring swept the country in February, Mahdi was front and center. In an interview with The Washington Post that month, Mahdi described how, after a demonstration suppressed with violence that left more than 13 people dead, he was among four journalists picked up by security forces and driven to the headquarters of the Iraqi Army’s 11th Division. He said he was beaten, given electric shocks and threatened with rape before being asked to sign a statement saying he had not been tortured.