Amnesty International urges Iraqi Kurdistan authorities to release two jailed journalists

Amnesty International urges Iraqi Kurdistan authorities to release two jailed journalists
The authorities in the Iraqi Kurdistan region are under permanent scrutiny from international rights groups for curbing freedom of expression and media outlets. 
5 min read
29 August, 2023
The Kurdistan region’s judiciary is not independent and it is subordinate to the two main ruling parties. (Getty)

Amnesty International has called on the authorities in the Iraqi Kurdistan region to immediately release two Kurdish journalists who have been imprisoned since October 2020 after "unfair" trials and now face "new spurious charges". 

"Journalists Sherwan Sherwani and Guhdar Zebari, imprisoned in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KR-I) since October 2020 following a grossly unfair trial, are facing new spurious charges. Guhdar Zebari was scheduled to be released on 16 August but was informed on the same day that he has been charged with another offence," Amnesty International said on 24 August in a letter addressed to Dindar Zebari, the Coordinator Office for International Advocacy (OCIA) in the Kurdistan Regional Government( KRG).  

"Sherwan Sherwani was due to be released on 9 September, but on 20 July, a court sentenced him to an additional four years in prison... Zebari and Sherwan must be immediately released," the letter added. 

The journalists, who were critical of the ruling clans in the semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq, were sentenced to six years behind bars allegedly for "endangering national security" in February 2021. 

The Kurdistan region's judiciary is not independent. It is subordinate to two main ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), in July sentenced Sherwani to an additional four years in jail on charges of alleged forgery as per Articles 295 and 298 from Iraq's penal code.

Sherwani's charge was based on him allegedly signing a document on behalf of four imprisoned colleagues.

Refink Yassin, a lawyer defending the two journalists, told The New Arab that Zebari is now in custody pending trial on charges of holding an unlicensed gun. 

"We expect the court to officially accuse my client, Zebari, in the coming days. Kurdish security agents found an unlicensed antique hunting weapon in his sister's home at the time of his arrest; it was not illegal at that time for the weapon to be unlicensed," Yassin said to TNA during a brief phone interview. "The antique hunting weapon belonged to Zebari's grandfather; the weapon does not work and was hung on the wall as an antique."

According to Amensty's letter, "Zebari was scheduled for release on 16 August 2023 but was informed that day by the KR-I's primary security and intelligence agency, the Asayish, that he was being detained on new charges. He began a hunger strike on the same day and has been on hunger strike since. On 23 August 2023, the Asayish informed him that he was being charged for possessing an unlicensed weapon, violating Article 15 of Law No.2, passed in 2022." 

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Yassin emphasised that the charges against Zebari and Sherwani are "politically motivated" as the Kurdish authorities, especially the KDP, dominant in Erbil and Duhok, fear political setbacks as the journalists now become famous people listen to them.  

In March 2022, the Kurdistan region's parliament passed a new law for owning weapons and annulled Law No. 16 for 1993, which did not criminalise owning hunting weapons. 

According to  Law No.2 of 2022, people should obtain a licence from the KRG Ministry of Interior for owning all weapons, including hunting guns.   

Breaching the new law is punishable for one year up to three years and a fine between (2000000-5000000 Iraqi dinars).  
Hence, Zebari might face at least another year in jail if convicted.

Sherwani, with hundreds of other activists and teachers from the Badinan area of Duhok, were arrested by Kurdistan Region's Security Council (KRSC), which is affiliated with the KDP, after a series of anti-government protests emerged in Dohuk in 2020.

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Ayhan Saeed, the representative of families of the Duhok prisoners who is also a lawyer, told TNA that Zebari was held in custody pending trial as per a complaint from the General Directorate of Erbil's Security. He said police forces should have looked into Zebari's case. He clarified that Zebari is now on hunger strike, and his health is deteriorating as he refuses to eat and drink anything.  

He indicated that per the Iraqi penal code, no prisoner should face trial twice, and the new charges against the journalists were already in their dossiers. Still, the Kurdish judiciary unfairly treats the journalists to keep them behind bars.  

"Zebari's case is a pure politically motivated case, and the KRG prime minister Marour Barzani is interfering in the Judiciary's affairs," Saeed concluded. 

Security authorities in Duhok on Thursday, 24 August, arrested  TV presenter Islam Kashani, a Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) member, on charges of supporting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). He was released on Saturday following extensive condemnations by local and international press freedom watchdogs.  

Sherwani was due to be released in September after his six-year term was reduced by 50 per cent as per a decision by the Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani issued a decree in February 2022.

"We have definitely not said that and will not say that the freedom of the judiciary and the rule of law in the Kurdistan Region does not face any issues! We do not say that everything about the judiciary authority is fine and it is not under political pressure!" Rudaw quoted  Barzani on Sunday while he hosted 60 newly graduated judges and deputy prosecutors. "The judiciary authority is facing serious issues and challenges which need to be addressed and reformed."