Monthly report: February 2021

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Prosecution of journalists and activists:

In a move that signals further terrible is ahead for freedom of speech and civic activism, three journalists (Sherwan Sherwani, Guhdar Zebari , Ayaz Karam) and two activists (Shivan Saeed and Hariwan Issa) were convicted to six years of prison each on 15th and 16th of February 2021. The trial which lasted two days took place in the second branch of Erbil’s criminal court. The five have been behind bars since October 2020. The total number of journalist and opposition activists that have been detained in Duhok province since August 2020 is 76, according to representative of families of the detainees. However, Kurdistan Watch has only been able to document the identities of 30 of them as the other families prefer to keep the identity of their sons private, fearing political, social and economic repercussions.

The detention and trial process has been widely condemned as untransparent and unfair and the charges as trumped-up because they have been subjected to overcrowded prison cells, torture, other forms of intimidation and denied regular access to lawyers. The short trial also raised many question about due process and the wide judicial system in the Kurdistan Region. 

One week before the trial, the KRG prime minister accused the journalist of being “spies” working for “foreign powers” and provoking conflict, and “armed vandals who tried to bomb foreign missions”. The prime minister, who headed his party’s secret service before taking office, offered no proof to back up his allegations.

The prosecutors accused the five journalists and activists of undermining ‘national security’. Gulestan Saeed, head of Gorran movement in Kurdistan parliament whose movement is part of the government told Kurdistan Watch that the evidence against the five were general Facebook Messenger chats in which they say this government needs to be changed. “These kinds of statements are mainstream and there were no evidence they intended or planned any attacks,” she explained. Moreover, in a violation of the defendants’ basic rights, the lawyers weren’t allowed to see the ‘evidence’ and they weren’t allowed to meet their clients before the session. Brother of one of the defendants told Kurdistan Watch that “mobiles and laptops of the detainees have been with the security (Asayish) since the beginning; we are afraid they have made up ‘evidence’ against them given they have access to their electronic devices”.

Prominent Kurdistan MP Ali Hama Salih who was present in the second and final day of the trial said, one of the five is convicted for investigating an illegal oilfield and sending information about the field to another journalist. MP Gulistan Saeed further said “we tried to meet the detainees but the Asaiysh forces did not allow us to talk to them. The trial happened under an extreme militarised environment. The forces prevented the families of the defendants to attend the trial as well”. Saeed also stated that “the five journalists and activists said they have been tortured under interrogation and they were threatened by raping their wives among other things. Their prison condition was disastrous, they said in a 50m2-room there were 118 prisoners”.

Shivan Saeed’s brother Ayhan also said his brother was arrested since October 22, 2020 but his family were denied to know his whereabouts for two months, “then under UN pressure they told us that he was jailed in a prison in Erbil by anti-terror forces”.

Since his arrest, Shivan has not been allowed to meet his lawyer and talk to his family. “Only on January 6th 2021 my father was allowed to see him for five minutes with the presence of a security officer, they were not able to talk to each other”. This has been corroborated by several other family members of the other detainees. For instance, Laween Ayub’s father told media “his son has been detained for seven months now but neither them nor his lawyer has been able to meet him and they don’t know why his son is detained.”

Who are the five convicted journalists and activists:

1- Shivan Saeed

He is a 37-year-old Duhok-based moderate Islamic cleric and head of Coalition for Democracy and Justice party which was founded by current Iraqi president Barham Salih. Shivan was known for his nationalist leanings, in a speech in a conference of Kurdish Muslim clerics in Turkey, his calls for Kurdish unity.

2- Sherwan Sherwani

He is a 38-year-old journalist. He was editor-in-chief of Erbil-based Bashur magazine. He had worked in several other Kurdish media outlets before including Hawlati newspaper and Washan magazine. He was a vocal critic of Barzani family and has tried to report on sensitive topics such as political prisoners and the oil business.

3- Guhdar Zebari

He is a 30-year-old journalist based in Akrê in east Duhok province. Zebari was the co-editor of the Kurmaci edition of Ajansi Wllat which is believed to be funded by PUK co-leader Lahur Talabani. He has worked as a reporter for several other media outlets including opposition NRT TV and Speda TV. Zebari has been a vocal critic of KDP.

4- Ayaz Karam

He is a 35-year-old Duhok-based freelance journalist. He has worked for several Kurdish outlets including Roj news, NRT TV, KNN TV and Sbeiy website. He had made several media reports for NRT TV in North East Syria before including in Kobani. Since 2017, the security forces have detained him a dozen times and taken over his ID and other official papers. Karam has been a local critic of KDP; he has also been a vocal critic of Turkish military presence in Kurdistan Region.

5- Hariwan Issa

He is a 29-year-old graduate of physical education and an athlete with the Zerevani tram in Duhok. He has largely been apolitical but he has participated in some gatherings such as one in solidarity with Rojava and another in support of freedom of speech.

The aftermath:

Following widespread criticism of the ruling on social media, the judicial council said they will file defamation cases against anyone who criticises the judicial system. Several arrest warrants have since been issued including for Aynan Saeed who is a human rights activist, Kaydan Hussein who is a member of Gorran movement and Difaa Harki, a journalist. The three currently live in Sulaimani which is controlled by PUK and are unlikely to be arrested.

The rushed convictions have been widely criticised in local and international groups. In an unusual statement, Kurdistan president Nichervan Barzani said the ruling isn’t final and the appeal court can overturn it. KDP leadership member and Masoud Barzani’s cousin in bolder statement said he hopes the appeals court reviews the sentences in a way that paves the way for the five to go back to their families. The PUK and Gorran movement which are KDP’s main partners in the KRG cabinet also called the sentences politically motivated. Other prominent media outlets in Kurdistan Region and international organisations called the rulings a “dangerous moment for press freedom and freedom of expression in Kurdistan”.

What now?

The rulings aren’t final yet, the cessation court (appeals court) has to review the ruling and either certify it or overturn it. 

What the cessation court decide is signification because it will set the course for some other 70 activists that are still behind bars and await their trials; it will also set the course for press freedom and broader freedom of expressions in the Kurdistan Region and the months and years to come.

Timeline of some other human rights-related incidents in the Kurdistan Region:

February 1: Shayan Askari, who protested with other civil servants in 2018 asking for her unpaid salaries, was assaulted by a man while filming. The man, turned out to be KDP-undercover, sued her for filming him and now the court ruled in favour of the man, fined Shayan 7200000 IQD ($4900). Shayan was a medical doctor at the time but she later run for parliament on then opposition Gorran movement’s list. Following the elections, Gorran joined the new KRG cabinet. Shayan has since rebelled from her party for rubber stamping what she calls rampant corruption.

February 2: Turkish warplanes bombed the outskirts of the village of Shene in Raparin area near the Iranian border, which wounded a 40-year-old woman. The wounded woman was rushed to a hospital in Qaladze and believed to be recovered. On Feb 10 Turkish army launched an intense four-day operation (Claw-Eagle 2) against the PKK in Kurdistan Region’s Mount Gara which resulted in the death of 12 Turkish captives with PKK and an Iraqi Kurd from Duhok. Jutiar Muhsin was captured by the PKK in late January 2020 in the Duhok areas and accused of spying for Turkish army. During the operation, 90 villages in the Amedi district were affected.

Conflict tracker Airwars estimates between 50 to 72 people have been killed in the region by Turkish airstrikes and cross-border shelling since July 2015.

February 3: Public employees and university graduates and others held several demonstrations to demand their wages. Public servants including teachers in the Sulaimani city and its towns protested over unpaid salaries which has not be distributed on time since 2014. Dozens of university graduates and youths, many were among the top ten graduates, protested in front of the KRG’s Council of Minster’s office in Erbil over high rate of unemployment and demand the government to provide job opportunities at least for top graduates.  In the past, the KRG would offer government jobs to the top university students as a way to keep local talent but it ended following the 2014 financial crisis. Dukan Dam workers also went on strike on 9 Feb to protest their delayed salaries. On 14 Feb also civil servants at the Sulaimani Passport Directorate’s National ID Card department and at its offices in the Garmian and Raparin administrations went on strike for the same reason.

February 4: The body of Briar Bakhtiar, a 34-year-old Kurdish migrant, who was missing for 50 days, was found in Italy. Briar left Kurdistan in August 2020 and went missing on 23 September 2020 in Italy. He was on his way to Europe via a smuggling route. His body was repatriated to Kurdistan region on Feb 5, 2021 and laid to rest in his home town SaidSadiq. 

February 3: Unidentified gunman opened fire at a house belonging police officer Sheikhal Ibrahim in Sulaimani, before then beating him and members of his family. Sheikhal accused a son of member of PUK leadership council Qadir Aziz. The mid-ranking PUK security official said, Aziz’s son along with 15 of his gunmen fire at least 200 bullets at his e house and two people were slightly injured. He told NRT that earlier in the evening a Cadillac with tinted-windows and an Erbil license plate cut him off on the road, sparking an argument between him and the other driver. After Ibrahim returned home, the driver with whom he had argued arrived with several other men, who opened fire on his home. 

February 4: The PUK-affiliated security forces (Asayish) in Sulaimani arrested four from the same family over terror related charges. Only seven days after their arrest, Asayish published their confessions before their trial. The security forces said the four are responsible for planting an SIS flag and booby-traps in a field in Saidsadiq district. 

February 6: Member of the Kurdistan Parliament’s Finance Committee Omar Gulpi said that over the fifteen month period covering 2020 and the final quarter of 2019, people with disabilities and special needs only received eight monthly disbursements. kurdistan Justice Group’s MP also said the KRG has only distributed $68.5 million (around 70 percent) of the $274 million allocation sent to the Kurdistan for social care programs from Baghdad, including $98.7 million for people will disabilities. In Kurdistan disabled people are paid $68.51 if they have a job or $102.77 if they do not.

February 7: The families of 76 political detainees from Duhok province planned to gather in front of United Nation’s office in Erbil but most were denied entry to Erbil and others were forcefully removed in front of the office. The families of the detained activists and journalists planned to give a letter to the UN. In the letter, which we have obtained a copy, the families ask for UN’s intervention as most of the journalists and activists were arrested in practices marred with violence. The families said they are worried about the condition of their sons – as some have been tortured and forced into fabricated admissions; the arrests are designed to force dissidents into silence. All detainees have been transferred to the general security (Asayish) prison in Erbil. 

February 8: A Yazidi woman in her 20s, indentified as Zina Haj Khidir, had committed suicide in the village of Guhbal in the northern part of Mt Sinjar. There had been at least 12 confirmed cases of suicide among the Yazidi youth, mostly in the IDP camps in Duhok province, since the start of 2021. Since the Yazidi Genocide in 2014, most Yazidis have been displaced and unemployed with too many hours to fill and a lack of psychosocial support as they are left largely unaided with their trauma, and have little sense things will get better. They urgently need help.

February 9: Communist Party of Kurdistan revealed that 30 workers have died in Kurdistan Region in 2020 due to poor working conditions: 17 were in Sulaimani, 11 in Erbil and two in Duhok.

February 10: A clash between a group of the Peshmerga forces and Asayish (security) of a checkpoint near Sulaimani resulted in one Asayish member killed and five wounded. Both forces are affiliated with the PUK. The Peshmerga force belongs to “Golden Force”, a private militia under control of PUK’s senior commander Sheikh Jaafar, who is also Kurdistan’s Vice President. Five other members of Asayish were stabbed with knives; two of them were in critical condition. At that time the PUK authorities claimed they started thorough investigation into the incident, but nothing has published yet. 

February 11: Iraq’s ministry of migration plans to close 10 IDP camps out of 26 that still exist in Kurdistan Region; 38,000 families live in these camps, majority are Yazidis. There are 15 camps in Duhok, 6 in Erbil and 4 in Sulaimania in which 956k refugees live, 700k of them are IDPs.

February 12: The KDP Asayish arrested PUK cadre Nazir Barwari in the Darkar district of Duhok province for suspected ties with the PKK. In a statement, PUK condemned the “politically-motivated” arrest and called for the release of Nazir and other political detainees in Duhok. Senior PUK official in Duhok Aras Muhammad Agha said “All of them have been jailed without arrest warrant and court’s decision. Badian area has really become a place for political prisoners and that is unacceptable”. 

February 12: Three young men arrested in Sedakan district in northeast Erbil province over suspected ties to the PKK: on February 6th, two brothers, Jigar Rashid and Rashad Rashid were arrested by KDP’s anti-terror force; another man Muhammed Shakir was arrested in Distana village in Sedakan.

February 13: According to the KRG directorate of combating domestic violence, the rate of divorce cases has increased by 110% in five years in Kurdistan Region: In 2015, nearly 5000 divorce cases were recorded. The number jumped to 11,000 in 2020. 

15 Feb:  A 19-year-old woman in the district of Bardarash in east Duhok province commits suicide on her wedding day because she was reportedly forced to marry her cousin.

February 17: Journalists and civil society activists held a small protest in Sulaimani to condemn the six-year-jail for the five journalists and activists of Duhok province. No protest has been held in Erbil or Duhok to protest the politically motivated verdict against the detainees. They asked the Court of Appeak to show its impartiality to refuse the verdict. 

February 17: A 31-year-old Yazidi man and two of his children (a boy 10 and a girl 11), died in a fire at Berseve IDP camp in Zakho. Five other people were injured, including the man’s wife and other son, Rudaw reported. The woman, 31, has burns over 35 percent of her body, Two children, aged eight and ten years old, survived with 35 percent and 50 percent burns to their bodies. the fire was caused by an electrical fault. The camp is home to more than 7,000 people, mostly Yazidis, according to January 2021 data published by the Joint Crisis Coordination Centre (JCC).  Approximately 110,000 Yazidis are still displaced in the Kurdistan Region after Daesh attack on Shingal in 2014. 

February 26: Outspoken Kurdish member in Iraqi Parliament from Hope alliance, Ghalib Muhammad, has been severely stabbed with knives and knuckles in front of his house in Sulaimani. He was rushed to hospital, but discharged as his condition was stable several hours later. CC TVs have identified the person who stabbed him he hasn’t yet been arrested. MP Ghalib is a vocal critic of the PUK, KDP and his own Gorran movement too. He has rebelled against Gorran along with the entire movement’s faction in Iraqi Parliament since Gorran’s participation in the KRG cabinet led by Masrour Barzani. The Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani condemned the attack in a phone call with Mr Ghalib, saying he had directed the security forces in Sulaimani to launch a “thorough investigation” into the incident and bring the perpetrators to justice.

February 28: According to KRG’s directorate of combating violence against women: 471 women were killed in the name of honour from 2010 to 2020: Erbil: 211. Sulaimani: 156. Duhok: 104. The numbers have gradually reduced, however. In 2020, 26 women were killed throughout Kurdistan.

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