20th May 2024

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Technology and Computer

TikTok Star Is Killed in Third Death of Social Media Influencer in Iraq

It took less than 46 seconds for the helmeted assassin to pull over his motorcycle, walk to the driver’s side of the S.U.V., yank open the door and fire his handgun four times, killing one of Iraq’s most prominent TikTok personalities, a 30-year-old woman whose name on social media was Um Fahad.

The security camera footage of the killing in front of a Baghdad home on Friday evening is startlingly explicit but sheds little light on either the killer’s identity or the reason Um Fahad was targeted. The Iraqi Interior Ministry, which released the video, said it had formed a committee to investigate her death.

The victim, whose real name was Ghufran Mahdi Sawadi, had become popular on social media sites, especially TikTok and Instagram, where her videos showed her wearing tight or revealing clothing, or singing and cuddling her young son. They won her some 460,000 followers, but also drew the ire of conservatives in Iraqi society and in the government.

At one point, officials ordered Ms. Sawadi jailed for 90 days, reprimanding her for a post that showed her dancing at her 6-year old son’s birthday party.

At her sparsely attended funeral, her brother, Ameer Mehdi Sawadi, said he had little faith that her killer would be caught.

“I can name many innocents who have been killed,” Mr. Sawadi said. “Have you heard anything about their case? Did they find the killer? No.”

Given his sister’s prominence, the government might be expected to take action, but no official has come to see him since her death, he said.

“No one sat down with me and interrogated me,” Mr. Sawadi said. “I only told them that she was my sister, and I gave the authorities my name, and that’s it.”

Ms. Sawadi’s killing was the third in less than a year in Iraq of a young social media personality.

The killings appear to have been an outgrowth of an Iraqi clampdown on criticism of the government and on the public display of behaviors regarded as secular and Western, according to human rights groups.

The stricter social media regulations came in the wake of youth uprisings that began in 2019 and challenged corruption in the Iraqi government and the influence of Iran. Today, the Iraqi government is dominated by parties with links to Iran, and many have a strong religious orientation.

The most recent addition to the list of prohibited activities was contained in legislation approved by the Parliament over the weekend. The country’s anti-prostitution law now targets gay, bisexual and transgender Iraqis, making it a crime to have homosexual relations, punishable by 10 to 15 years in prison. Assisting in gender transition treatment would also be a crime.

The Parliament’s acting speaker, Mohsen al-Mandalawi, described the law as “a necessary step to protect the value structure of society, and in the higher interest of protecting our children from calls to immorality and homosexuality that are now invading countries.”

The new law was sharply criticized by Foreign Minister David Cameron of Britain and by a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, Matthew Miller, who said that “limiting the rights of certain individuals in a society undermines the rights of all.”

Mr. Miller also said that the newly amended law could be used “to hamper free speech and expression and inhibit the operations of NGOs across Iraq.”

Ms. Sawadi was jailed after running afoul of an expanded definition of laws in the Iraqi penal code aimed at speech viewed as harming public order and morality.

In 2023, the Interior Ministry issued new regulations restricting social media content deemed “indecent” or “immoral.” Ms. Sawadi was one of a handful of social media influencers tried and sentenced for violating the regulations. She told The New York Times then that she could not understand what she was being punished for.

“The judge asked me why I was dancing and showing part of my breast,” she said.

In September, in a killing that was also caught on a surveillance camera, an assassin using a gun with a silencer shot another TikTok personality, Noor Alsaffar, 23, a man who posted videos of himself wearing women’s clothes and makeup. The killer has not been caught.

And about two months ago, a transgender social media personality known as Simsim was stabbed to death in Diwaniyah, a city in southern Iraq. A suspect has been arrested in that case and remains in custody.

Women’s rights activists and researchers say they are distressed at the impunity and the apparent lack of interest by the police and government leaders in women’s sense of safety.

“The streets of Baghdad are filled with surveillance cameras, and it is not difficult to find the criminals,” said Fatin al-Hilfi, a former member of Iraq’s Human Rights Commission. “In neighboring countries, the police can find the criminals within hours.”

Ms. al-Hilfi said she worried that critics of Ms. Sawadi were too ready to move on and reluctant to see the larger implications if her death goes unsolved.

“How can it be that here it is so easy to commit such an attack?” she asked.

Falih Hassan and Jaafar Thamer contributed reporting.


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