Amnesty International slams Kurdish clamp-down on dissent

After 2020 protests in Iraqi Kurdistan, authorities in the Kurdistan Regional Government launched a mass campaign of arrests against activists, protesters and journalists covering the protests under the pretext of preserving “national security”.
Saturday 19/06/2021
A file picture shows Kurdish security forces standing guard near the Erbil governorate headquarters in Erbil, the capital of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. AFP
A file picture shows Kurdish security forces standing guard near the Erbil governorate headquarters in Erbil, the capital of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. (AFP)

LONDON--The authorities in Kurdistan have been clamping down on protests and criticism, arresting and detaining illegally journalists and demonstrators, claims Amnesty International in a new report.

The organisation has called subsequent trials a travesty of justice with defendants later being further charged for claiming in court that they had been tortured when in custody.

Individuals had disappeared into custody and friends and relatives were unable to establish their whereabouts, sometimes for months.

“Authorities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KR-I) must put an end to their ongoing crackdown of protests by way of arbitrary arrests and harassment and they should immediately release those detained, including those already sentenced following unfair trials, in relation to their participation in protests or related activism or professional practice, said Amnesty International.

In mid-August 2020, widespread protests erupted in the KR-I, mainly in Sulaimaniyah, Duhok and Erbil, demanding an end to corruption, better public services and the payment of overdue salaries of government employees. In the aftermath, authorities in the Kurdistan Regional Government launched a mass campaign of arrests against activists, protesters and journalists covering the protests under the pretext of preserving “national security”.

Amnesty reported: “According to lawyers and human rights workers interviewed by Amnesty International between March 2020 and April 2021, Kurdish security forces reportedly arrested over 100 individuals in Duhok governorate alone and specifically in the Badinan area, northwest of the governorate. Most individuals were released shortly after, but at least 30 remain in detention.”

Amnesty said between February and May 2021 it had interviewed 21 of the detained, their family members, lawyers, human rights workers and journalists. It had also reviewed official court documents including arrest warrants and court verdicts. It documented the cases of 14 individuals from Badinan (three journalists and 11 civil society and political activists), all arrested between August and October 2020  and found that in all cases, Asayish, the KRG’s primary security and intelligence agency and members of Parastin, the intelligence agency of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party KDP, had arbitrarily arrested, detained and in six cases, “disappeared”, individuals, in connection to their participation in protests, their criticism of local authorities or to their journalistic work.

“All 14 individuals were held incommunicado for periods ranging between a few days to five months” said Amnesty, “Six were subjected to enforced disappearance, a crime under international law, for periods of time ranging between ten days to over three months. Of the 14 individuals, three were released but went into hiding for fear of renewed reprisals and one went into hiding after receiving threats; five remained in detention without charge or known charges and five individuals were sentenced to six years in prison following an unfair trial”

Amnesty said it had also found four cases where family members of the detained were harassed or intimidated and said a defence lawyer had been approached by an Asayish operative asking about the case in which he was involved. He took this encounter as a clear threat over his involvement in the defence of his client.

Amnesty said that on February 16 2021, the second Erbil Criminal Court sentenced five activists and journalists Sherwan Sherwani, Guhdar Zebari, Hariwan Issa, Ayaz Karam and Shvan Saeed, to six years each, over acts deemed to be prejudicial to the security and sovereignty of the KR-I.

“They were accused of ‘spying on account of foreign actors; of having supplied the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) with sensitive information, placed the lives of senior Kurdistan regional authorities and foreign officials at risk by gathering information about them and collected arms with the intention of supplying them to an unidentified armed group”.

Amnesty continued: “Their trial was marred by serious violations of their right to a fair trial, including concerns around sentences based on statements extracted under duress, failure to provide in a timely manner the case documents allowing defence lawyers to adequately prepare their defence and failure to order investigations into the defendants’ claims of torture. Their families were not allowed to attend the sessions”.

According to lawyers and to the United Nations Assistance Mission on Iraq (UNAMI), who attended the hearings, all five defendants claimed in court that Asayish had extracted their “confessions” under torture.

In eight of the cases Amnesty said it documented, individuals were reportedly made to sign confessions or confess on video-tape under duress. “Do not believe what is said on the video. When you see it, know that this was not me. I didn’t do anything. They [Asayish] made us do it,” Suleiman Kamal Suleiman told his family in a phone call in reference to a video-taped “confession” which he maintains was extracted under duress.

Amnesty continued:“ In the case of the five sentenced individuals, the court then relied on these so-called confessions, as well as documents found on the electronic properties confiscated, as well as on  (the evidence of) two informants, one of whom remained anonymous. In one case, the sentenced individual faced additional charges of defamation for his claims of torture made in court. But the judge dismissed all these claims and ignored a range of procedural violations which the defence lawyer raised during the hearing. ”

Amnesty International maintained that in none of the cases were lawyers give access to the files ahead of the hearing and so could not prepare adequate defences. In addition these lawyers were not allowed to challenge prosecution evidence which was made up of the defendants’ confessions and the secret informant who was not produced in court, even despite an order from the judge.

Further evidence against the journalist Sherwani was produced from his electronic devices. Amnesty said “the main evidence brought against him in court was the creation of a messenger group, which he was accused of creating for espionage purposes and for sharing sensitive governmental information.”

When contacted by Amnesty International this March, Office of the Coordinator for International Advocacy (OCIA) of the Kurdistan Regional government claimed that the convictions of the three journalists were not related to their work. However the human rights organisation said that it had examined the chat group messages and concluded that they were indeed used for journalism

Sherwani was later prosecuted again for claiming in court that he had been tortured in detention.

Amnesty International has said the Kurdish authorities must immediately release all those kept in arbitrary detention and those given unfair trials unless they are charged with a crime that is recognisable in international law.

The organisation is further demanding that “reprisals, intimidation and harassment of journalists, human rights defenders, activists and their families must end”.  It also wants the KR-I to amend ill-defined and vague laws that have been used a tool to limit freedom of expression.