'Every day feels like a new death': Kurdish authorities are complicit in the murders of innocent protestors

Adham Kurdish protestor
6 min read
22 August, 2022

The families of demonstrators shot dead by ruling party militias in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq have decried the lack of justice for their loved ones. 

"They killed my son, he was just an innocent shepherd returning from grazing his sheep. He wasn't a demonstrator. He said to me 'I'll just go to get a haircut' and never came back." Those were the heart-breaking words of the mother of Adham Yahya Ahmed, a 26-year-old Kurdish youth killed on December 7 2020 in Chamchamal at anti-government protests. He was one of eight killed that day by militiamen of the ruling parties. 

Since the Arab Spring, protests have sprung up in Iraqi Kurdistan (IKR) against corruption, poor public services and targeted assassinations of activists and journalists. Authorities have used lethal means to curtail peaceful protests, with scores dying in the process. 

"The law and the judiciary are not sovereign [in Iraqi Kurdistan], the two ruling parties do whatever they want"

Relatives of the deceased have told The New Arab that, so far, none of those who opened fire on their sons has been arrested.

Defence lawyers of the victims have stressed that the two Kurdish ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have chosen to violently interfere with the region's judiciary, in doing so, preventing the courts from bringing the killers to justice. 

"My brother was shot in the chest 15 metres away by gunmen outside the KDP's headquarters in Chamchamal. We filed a legal case against KDP officials and guards who shot at my brother and other civilians, so far none of the perpetrators have been arrested, despite arrest warrants," Halat, the brother of Adham, told The New Arab when we visited their house. 

Kurdish protests
Dressed in all black, Adham's grieving mother burst into tears when she saw the clothes that her son wore for the last time on the day he was murdered [photo credit: Dana Taib Memny]

"This government is incapable. If it was at all competent, it would have arrested my son's killers. Instead, they [the KRG's ruling parties] are harbouring them with impunity. This causes untold suffering," Rezan Aziz Majeed, Adham's mother told The New Arab

The families also stressed that, behind closed doors, the perpetrators asked them to reach tribal reconciliations outside the courts, but the families have refused. 

The KDP has denied killing Adham or opening fire on the protestors. The New Arab contacted the director of police in Chamchamal, but the official refused to talk about Adham’s case file, saying that he is not authorised by the KRG to speak to the press. 

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Thousands of Kurds have participated in demonstrations in Sulaimaniyah, Erbil, Halabja and Duhok provinces over corruption, unpaid salaries and high unemployment rates, but the peaceful protests have descended into violence with militiamen of the ruling parties of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) responding with live bullets.

Five Kurdish protestors were killed by Kurdish forces on December 12, 2017 in Rania town of Sulaymaniyah. 

While the KDP is the absolute ruler in Duhok and Erbil, the PUK is the dominant ruler in Sulaimaniyah and Halabja provinces. Both parties, which fought each other from 1994 until 1998, have separate Peshmerga and security forces. 

Majeed and Halat said that bringing the perpetrators to justice is difficult because of the “politicisation of the judiciary” and “impunity by the Kurdish authorities.” 

Harem Ali, a 13-year-old student from Said Sadiq, 60 kilometres southeast of the city of Sulaymaniyah, was also killed in a protest on December 8th, 2020.

"Although Harem was still young, he experienced the oppression committed by the PUK and KDP so decided to participate in the demonstration. He was martyred by a live bullet, shot in the back," Hamn Ali, brother of Harem, told The New Arab via WhatsApp. "Until now, the trial of my brother's killers has been deliberately suspended."

"The law and the judiciary are not sovereign [in Iraqi Kurdistan], the two ruling parties do whatever they want. Since we are poor and the killers are affiliated with their parties, there is no need to bring them to justice." 

Despite this, Nariman Talib, spokesperson of the KRG Ministry of Justice, told The New Arab that the court system in Iraqi Kurdistan remains independent and is regulated under the "independent authority of the region's judiciary council.

Kurdish protests
"Every day the government doesn't arrest my son's killers feels like a new death to me," Rezan Aziz Majeed, mother of Adham told The New Arab [photo credit: Dana Taib Memny]

The New Arab also reached out to the media department of the IKR’s Judiciary Council but were not available to comment.

Shivan Mohammed Shukur, 21, a third-year history student at Kalar Education College, was shot dead on January 10, 2020 during a demonstration in Kifiri town in Sulaimaniyah province.

Another brother of Shivan was also wounded on the same day. His family filed a legal case against Major General Haji Osman, Commander of Brigade 136, Unit 70 of Kurdish Peshmerga Forces who were deployed in the town to curb the demonstrations. 

Unit 70 is affiliated with the PUK, and Unit 80 is affiliated with the KDP. Although both forces are apparently run by the KRG Ministry of Peshmerga, they take orders from their partisan commanders. The two parties often accuse each other of being behind-targeting the protestors.   

Two years later after the case was filed at the court in Kifiri, the commander and six of his personal guards surrendered themselves to police forces on August 9 to be tried under Article 406 of the Iraqi Penal Code.

If they plead guilty, they could face a punishment of life imprisonment or the death penalty.

"Unfortunately, all the case files of the protestors have been settled outside the court. The main reason for this is because of the perpetrator's links with the ruling parties," Farman Hasan, a voluntary lawyer defending the families told The New Arab.

"All the cases share one common theme: the courts can't find the killers. But this is a weak pretext since each of the killers are well known to the Kurdish authorities and can easily find them by making the relevant inquiries."

Farman clarified that as the courts in the IKR are under the hegemony of the ruling parties, the courts all too often fail their duties. “The KRG local administrations, police and other investigation bodies should cooperate with the courts, but unfortunately they respond with a cold shoulder, consequently the killers are not found or arrested easily.”   

Dana Taib Menmy is The New Arab's Iraq Correspondent, writing on issues of politics, society, human rights, security, and minorities.

Follow him on Twitter: @danataibmenmy