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Periodic Report by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights on Human Rights Violations in the Kurdistan Region

GCHR

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq has witnessed continuous violations in the field of human rights, in particular freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly, including the Court of Cassation’s decision to approve six-year prison sentences against five activists and journalists. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) has gathered information on numerous cases into this periodic report on Iraqi Kurdistan. 

On 05 June 2021, the team of pro bono lawyers defending five imprisoned activists and journalists filed an appeal against the decision of the Court of Cassation, which upheld six-year prison sentences against the men on 28 April 2021. The lawyers have shown evidence that the Court of Cassation’s decision is unfair and not based on solid human rights principles. The team confirmed that one of the charges brought against their five clients, who are now in Erbil Central Prison, is related to their visits to the consulates of the United States and Germany in Erbil, which is not against the law. These two countries are welcomed by local authorities to provide help to the region in various fields, especially in its war against terrorism, and it is not acceptable to accuse the men of engaging in illegal activities simply for visiting their consulates, as stated in the indictment. 

The five men are journalist and civil society activist Ayaz Karam Burji from Dohuk, teacher and civil society activist Hariwan Issa Mohammed from Simele, journalist Kohdar Mohammed Amin Zebari from Akre, freelance journalist and civil society activist Sherwan Amin Sherwani from Erbil, and political activist Mulla Shafan Saeed Omar Brushki (Dosky). 

Many protesters and activists and have been arrested and put on trial in Iraqi Kurdistan. 

On 17 August 2021, the first hearing will begin in the trial of teacher and civil society activist Badal Abdulbaqi Berwari(Photo 1), a year after his arrest, along with other activists, due to their support for their participation in the peaceful protests that took place in 2020 to demand the government provide overdue salaries of employees, address the poor living conditions of citizens, eliminate corruption, improve public services, and initiate comprehensive reforms. 

On 25 April 2021, the Asayish (Internal Security) forces arrested 55 protesters who were condemning the Turkish attacks on areas in Iraqi Kurdistan and detained them. Among them was journalist Ribaz Hassan (Photo 2), a correspondent and photographer of the Furat News Agency. They were all released on 28 April 2021. Reliable local reports confirmed that their detention was arbitrary, during which they were beaten while being transported in cars owned by the Asayish forces. 

On 03 May 2021, the security forces in Rania District of Sulaymaniyah Governorate arrested political activist Karukh Othman, although the reason for his arrest is not yet known. Othman lives in the Qusra area of the Choman district, Erbil Governorate. 

On 03 May 2021, the Metro Center for Defending the Rights of Journalists announced that they had recorded 49 violations against journalists in the Kurdistan Region since the beginning of this year. Metro Center’s coordinator, human rights defender and journalist Rahman Gharib (Photo 3), said in a press conference held in Sulaymaniyah, “49 violations occurred against 36 journalists in the region within four months of the beginning of this year.” 

On 04 May 02021, the security authorities released two young brothers, civil society activists Ayman Saadallah Ahmed Ritesi (Duski) and Amin Saad Allah Ahmed Artesi (Duski), more than four months after their arrest on 13 December 2020. They were accused of managing a Facebook page calling for demonstrations, demanding employee rights, and providing good public services to citizens. 

On 15 May 2021, the Peshmerga’s Rose Force arrested political activist Mohammed Salih Zebari, a cadre of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, in the Dinarata town of ​​ Akre district in Dohuk Governorate on unknown charges, but as a result of pressure by his party, he was released the next day. The reason for his arrest is unknown. Al-Zibari is a resident of the village of Kohana in the Akre district. 

On 16 May 2021, writer and journalist Hemin Baqer (Photo 4), editor-in-chief of “Diplomatic” magazine, was detained after being summoned by the Bakhtiari Police Station in Sulaymaniyah, following a complaint lodged against him in Erbil by a party authority, after the magazine published corruption-related files about the work and performance of the Kurdistan Regional Government. He was released on the same day on bail of four million Iraqi dinars (approx. USD$2737), pending the date of the first court hearing, where the case against him will be considered. 

On 11 May 2021, the young citizen Mohammed Gabriel Hassan Omar (Photo 5) was arrested by the security forces in the city of Shiladze in Dohuk Governorate on charges of commercial cooperation with the Kurdistan Workers Party, and the security authorities have not released him yet. His family members stated that he was detained in the Asayish prison in the city of Dohuk, although no charges were formally brought against him and he was not brought to court, nor did the authorities allow him to receive visits or appoint a lawyer. 

On 17 May 2021, the investigative court in Erbil issued an arrest warrant against writer and journalist Rebwar Karim Wali (Photo 6), who was a presenter of political programs for Rudaw satellite channel, on charges that include misuse of means of communication, and encouraging people to break of the ban on movement during Covid-19, through a post on his Facebook page. The court demanded the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate to hand over the membership card of Wali – if he was a member, according to a letter addressed to the Journalists Syndicate, of which GCHR obtained a copy. However, Wali left the region for Sweden, where he resides, more than a year ago. 

On 23 May 2021, the family of political activist and head of the Al-Harki tribe, Jawhar Al-Harki, one of the largest clans in the Dohuk and Erbil Governorates, announced that the security services of the Kurdistan Democratic Party had been involved in an operation to kill all family members by assigning someone who prepared food in their house in the city of Sulaymaniyah to poison them. However, before he did so, the suspect confessed the plot to the family and alleged that he had been entrusted with this operation by a security apparatus in the city of Erbil. The family forgave him, but upon his return to the city of Dohuk, the security forces arrested him and forced him to admit that they had nothing to do with the plot, and he is still in detention. 

The Presidency of the Parliament of the Kurdistan Region, pursuant to letter No. (1519/K) on 31 May 2021, formed a fact-finding committee on the case of the attempted murder of Sheikh Al-Harki and his family members, but the committee investigated the case by listening to the security authorities only without interviewing the family and verifying the facts with them. The family refused the findings of the committee, which states that there was no assassination attempt on the family by the security or intelligence authorities, and they questioned its credibility because it did not meet with the family nor the arrested person allegedly involved in the plot. 

In 2003, Sheikh Al-Harki founded the Kurdistan Freedom and Justice Party abroad, which no longer exists. 

On 30 May 2021, a media crew for the Kurdish satellite channel (NRT), including reporter Sabah Sofi Goran (Photo 7), was beaten with rifle butts by a group of Peshmerga to prevent them from carrying out their professional work in their coverage of the demonstration carried out by another group of Peshmerga, the third regiment of the 12th Brigade. The protesters protected them and recovered equipment that the attackers had tried to confiscate. 

On 31 May 2021, the security forces in Sulaymaniyah Governorate arrested specialist physician Dr. Bakhan Azad (Photo 8) after she exposed cases and files of corruption in the health sector in the Halabja Governorate and talked about the failure of its Public Health Directorate to provide exemplary health services to the governorate’s residents. She was not released on bail until 03 June 2021 after being kept in a prison belonging to the Asayish in Sulaymaniyah. Dr. Azad stated in a press conference held on the same day of her release that she is subjected to constant threats from influential people in Sulaymaniyah, forcing her to leave her city. On 05 June 2021, she said she left Bakhan for the city of Erbil because of the continuing threats she was exposed to. 

On 02 June 2021, a media crew for NRT was attacked, threatened and their equipment was destroyed by the security forces, including members of the police in Dohuk Governorate, while NRT was broadcasting live to cover the protest by owners who rent offices in front of the Dohuk Governorate building. NRT reporter Aram Hassan and cameraman Mohammed Sudqi were detained for a few hours before being released.

On 04 June 2021, a third media crew for NRT, while covering the fire at the Shariya camp for displaced Yazidis in Dohuk Governorate, had their equipment confiscated by security forces. It was later returned to them, but they were prevented from covering the incident. The security forces also did not allow NRT to report when the camp caught fire again the next day. The fire that consumed the camp caused the burning of 370 tents belonging to 184 families, comprising 994 people. The fires destroyed all their material possessions, documents and personal papers.

Recommendations

GCHR calls on the Kurdistan Regional Government to overturn the prison sentences issued against the five activists and journalists, as well as to immediately and unconditionally release them and all detained civil society activists, journalists and other prisoners of conscience, who are being forcibly imprisoned in violation of their rights to assemble and freely express their views. The authorities must fulfil their constitutional obligations not to violate public freedoms, including freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press.