Masrour Barzani hires Johnny Depp's lawyer for defamation case by Kurdish-American female activist

Masrour Barzani hires Johnny Depp's lawyer for defamation case by Kurdish-American female activist
The US District Courts, Virginia Eastern District Court, has scheduled a trial on 31 March for a defamation case raised by a Kurdish-American female activist against Masrour Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in north Iraq.
5 min read
13 February, 2023
Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) prime minister Masrour Barzani. [Getty]

Masrour Barzani, the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has reportedly hired Benjamin Benjamin Chew, a prominent US lawyer, to defend against Shnyar Anwar Hassan, a US citizen and activist from the Iraqi Kurdistan region, who filed an "assault, battery, and defamation" lawsuit against Barzani in the US District Courts, Virginia Eastern District Court in November, according to the plaintiff and court documents.

Chew became famous after he defended US actor Johnny Depp and won a defamation trial against Depp's ex-wife Amber Heard in June.  

"On 10 February, Benjamin Chew and David Bargar, representing Mr Barzani, the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region, filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. In their motion, they argue that Barzani is entitled to sovereign immunity as a senior official in the Kurdistan region, which is a federal region within the Iraqi state," Hassan told The New Arab.

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Political magazine The American Prospect published an investigation by Zack Kopplin, a journalist working for the US-based Government Accountability Project on 7 December 2021. The investigation found that  Masrour Barzani and his family owned several properties through shell companies - including an US$ 18.3 million CVS pharmacy in South Beach, Miami.

Shnyar and her husband, Sarkawt Shams, a former member of the Iraqi parliament, re-posted links to the story on Twitter and Facebook and translated the article into Kurdish.

On 9 December 2021, several news outlets in Kurdistan reported a statement in response to Kopplin's article that was issued in the Kurdish language by the Office of the Prime Minister of the KRG, in which the statement claimed that Shnyar and Kopplin – whose names were not included but were immediately identifiable – were in a "relationship". 

Lawyers defending Shnyar told TNA in November that the Kurdish word for "relationship" used in the statement was meant to imply that both the activist and the journalist "were having an extramarital affair."

"Masrour Barzani, current prime minister of Kurdistan, falsely accused Shnyar Anwar Hassan, an activist for women's rights and free speech in Iraqi Kurdistan, of having had an affair with a journalist who had written an article showing that Masrour Barzani and his family have secret, illicit wealth that they use to invest in properties and other hidden investments in the United States and elsewhere," John P. Rowley, an American lawyer defending Shnyar, told TNA via email.

"The allegation of infidelity, made in a statement issued on 9 December 2021 was a reckless and dangerous statement in a conservative religious society like that of Iraqi Kurdistan," Rowley said.

Chew and David G. Bargerc, another lawyer defending Barzani in their 41-page motion, which TNA has obtained a copy, asked the court to dismiss the complaint against the KRG PM.

Neither Plaintiff, her husband, nor any particular reporter is named in the release. The plaintiff argues that the Kurdish word, which someone translated as 'relationship,' when applied to a married woman and a man who is not her husband means in Kurdish culture and is understood by Kurdish speakers to mean an 'adulterous affair' outside of marriage. It should be noted that the Kurdish word has several meanings, including "communication." 

"They also claim that the statement in question was made by Barzani in his official capacity as prime minister and not in a personal capacity; therefore, the lawsuit should be brought against the KRG and not against Barzani personally," the activist noted. "Additionally, they claim that their statement does not imply 'adulterous affairs'. They further argue that the statement is part of a political dispute in a foreign country."

"My goal, in this case, is to achieve justice and respect. The statement made by Barzani has caused significant harm to my life and continues to do so. In December 2021, my mother and I, along with many others, called on Barzani to clarify and apologise for his statement and refused to do so," Hassan clarified.

"In response to Barzani's motion to dismiss, my lawyers will file their response within two weeks. A trial is scheduled for 31 March 2023, which both plaintiffs and defendants are traditionally expected to attend. I cannot comment for Mr Barzani whether he will attend the trial," she added. 

TNA contacted Jotyar Adil, the KRG official spokesperson, but he did not answer a request for comment. 

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"WHEREFORE, Plaintiff Shnyar Anwar Hassan respectfully requests that the Court enter judgment in her favour and against Defendant Masrour Barzani, awarding Plaintiff: A. Compensatory damages of not less than US$25,000,000, or in such additional amount to be proven at trial; B. Punitive damages to the maximum extent permitted by the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia but not less than US$350,000 on each count; C. Expenses and costs, including attorneys' fees; and granting such other and further relief as the Court deems appropriate," according to a copy of Shnyar's complaint sent to TNA by her lawyer.

The Government Accountability Project, on 9 December 2021, hit back at the PM office's statement, calling it "libel".

"Rather than addressing the serious allegations, Masrour Barzani accused our investigator of being motivated by having an affair with a Kurdish anti-corruption activist. Our investigator has never met this activist," their statement read.