General: Iraqi Kurdistan: Five activists and journalists sentenced to prison

23.02.21

After a wave of protests erupted in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in mid-August 2020, security forces arrested dozens of community activists, journalists, teachers, university professors and political activists, taking them to prisons and security detention centres. They were protesting deteriorating living conditions, unpaid salaries of employees for several months by the regional government, the continued financial crisis and disputes with Baghdad, and rampant corruption. Although a number of them were released, over two dozen remain in prison to this date, according to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR). In February, five activists and journalists were sentenced to six years in prison.

On 16 February 2021, five activists and journalists were tried before the Second Criminal Court in the city of Erbil. They are: journalist and civil society activist Ayaz Karam Burji from the city of Dohuk, teacher and civil society activist Hariwan Issa Ahmed from Simele, journalist Kohdar Mohammed Amin Zebari from Akre, writer and civil society activist Sherwan Amin Sherwani from Erbil, and political activist Mulla Shafan Saeed Omar Brushki (Dosky) from Dohuk.

The court's verdict in case no. 47, a copy of which GCHR received, stated that all five men were sentenced to a prison term of six years based on the provisions of Article 1 of Law No. 21 of 2003 issued by the Parliament of the Kurdistan Region and Articles 47, 48 and 49 of the Iraqi Penal Code. The court also decided to place them under police surveillance for a period of five years after the completion of their sentences, and to confiscate their mobile phones, laptops, and a camera. The judge ruled that the six-year imprisonment term would start from the day of their arrests.

The court also decided to open two other independent cases against journalist Kohdar Mohammed Amin Zebari, related to materials seized at his home.

The court found the five men guilty of endangering Kurdish national security, based on their conversations on social media and a discussion group they created on Facebook, in which they criticised the local government, that led to the charges.

Eyewitnesses from inside the court, as well as members of the team of lawyers defending the five activists and journalists, confirmed that they were subjected to threats and psychological and physical torture during their detention and were forced to sign confessions containing false accusations. They have also suffered from overcrowding in prison cells, ill-treatment and intimidation, and have been denied regular visits with their families or contact with lawyers.

The trial, which lacked the minimum international standards for fair trial and due process, was subjected to clear political pressure. For example, the judge did not allow the families of the five activists and journalists to attend the courtroom.

The case file has been referred to the Kurdistan Court of Cassation, which is expected to issue its decision within 30 days. If it ratifies the verdicts, the rulings will be final, and the only way for the defendants to be released will be for the President of the Region, Nechirvan Barzani, to issue a pardon for them.

In a press conference on 10 February 2021, only six days before the trial of the activists, the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Masrour Barzani, accused the detained activists and journalists, saying: “These are not journalists, nor are they human rights activists, but a group of saboteurs involved in espionage and intelligence with foreign countries whose aim is to hit the security and stability of the Kurdistan region, bombing government institutions and diplomatic headquarters, kidnapping and assassinating foreigners in the region under the cover and dress of the press.” Local sources confirmed to GCHR that this dangerous statement was aimed at exerting maximum pressure on the judiciary and stripping it of its independence.

In addition, the fate of dozens of other detained journalists and activists remains unknown, as no date has been set for their trial and they are still imprisoned in a prison supervised by the Asayish (Internal Security) forces in the city of Erbil.

For more information, see GCHR’s most recent periodic report at:

https://www.gc4hr.org/news/view/2604

The six-year prison sentence against the five activists and journalists sparked widespread condemnation at the local and international levels, and was considered a violation of freedom of opinion and expression in the region and a severe restriction on the freedom of the press. Most of the Kurdish parties, with the exception of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), condemned the ruling, including the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Goran Movement and the Islamic Group.

GCHR strongly denounces the six-year prison sentences issued against the five activists and journalists, and believes that the convictions are a dangerous development threatening public freedoms in the region, particularly freedom of expression and freedom of the press. GCHR calls on the local government to repeal these arbitrary and unfair sentences and to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience, including the five sentenced activists and journalists, whose rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are being violated. The authorities must fulfill their constitutional obligations not to violate public freedoms, including freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press.