A trial sparks a wave of desperation and distrust in Iraq's Kurdistan

A trial sparks a wave of desperation and distrust in Iraq's Kurdistan
6 min read
26 Feb, 2021
Comment: The trial of five Kurdish activists and journalists for 'spying' has left Kurds furious with their leaders. As hardship increases, they recoil against growing authoritarianism, writes Judit Neurink.
Civil servants are owed months of salary payments and despair is palpable in Kurdistan [Getty]
"But Your Honour, they threatened to rape my wife!"

This exclamation, by a Kurdish journalist to the judge who would go on to sentence him to six years in jail for spying, may have made an even greater impression than the verdict itself.

Based on notes and pictures on the journalists' phones, plus confessions they refute or say were made under duress, five Kurdish journalists and activists had been convicted before the trial in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Erbil even began.

At a press conference days earlier, Prime Minister Masrour Barzani of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq denied that the 70 or so Kurds imprisoned during anti-government protests were journalists and activists.

He said they were "spies" working for "foreign powers" and provoking conflict, and "armed vandals who tried to bomb foreign missions". The prime minister, who headed his party's secret service before taking office, offered no proof to back up his allegations.

Given the number of judges Barzani's ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has appointed in recent years in those parts of the Kurdistan Region it administers, the verdict was seen as a foregone conclusion. At least one of the trial judges was also a prominent member of the KDP, and court documents circulating on social media indicate that Barzani ordered the verdict personally. Even if these claims are not true, the independence of Kurdish justice is clearly in jeopardy.

The verdict was seen as a foregone conclusion... the independence of Kurdish justice is clearly in jeopardy

The arrest warrants issued after the trial, for instance for the brother of one of the convicted men who himself is a human rights activist and member of an opposition party, for "undermining national security" make this clear. Many of those involved in the protests have fled the country.

They had been protesting the lack of salaries and jobs, for the Kurdistan government has not been able to pay its civil servants in a while. With most families in the region dependent on these salaries, young people unable to find work, and an underdeveloped private sector, hardship and desperation are on the rise.

Relatives of the convicted men and a dozen Kurdish media outlets protested the verdicts loudly. They spoke out against journalists being tried outside the Press Law that was originally passed to keep journalists out of jail. Many pointed out that essential information, like who the five men were supposed to have been spying for, has still to be provided.

The consuls of Germany, the Netherlands, Britain and France all expressed their concern about the human rights situation in Kurdistan. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the verdict "proves that the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government has finally dropped the pretence of caring about press freedom".

But this case is about more than press freedom, or even freedom of expression and civil rights. On social media, Kurds have started to compare their government's alleged torture tactics to those used by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath Party against them.

But even if we set these powerful emotions to one side, by packing the justice system with its own people and doing away with the independence of the judiciary, Kurdistan's powerful KDP under Masrour Barzani is steering the region towards a place where civilians will lose all trust in government as well as justice.

Until last year, protests would mainly be limited to areas outside KDP control, as a result of the party's tactics for enforcing loyalty and binding civilians to its cause by gifting them jobs, incomes, houses and cars. The fact that regional boundaries have shifted, leading to protests in KDP-controlled cities like Erbil and Duhok, must have startled the KDP and led indirectly to the harsh treatment and sentences meted out to the protesters.

But with civil servants owed 20 salaries and currently only receiving partial - and irregular - payments, despair is palpable in Kurdistan. To compensate for the federal budget which Baghdad is withholding, the government has turned to strictly taxing shopkeepers and others in the private sector. Hardly anyone is exempt from the hardship, except, of course, for the elites who are widely believed to have long been diverting part of Kurdistan's oil income and government revenue into foreign bank accounts.

The frustration this creates fuels the protests, just as it has done for over a year now in the rest of Iraq. First, after the fall of Saddam's regime in 2003, the Kurdistan Region enjoyed growth and peace while the rest of Iraq suffered strife, violence and poverty, but the gap between the two is now closing. And there are many apparent similarities in the causes of the violence, too.

Kurdistan's powerful KDP under Masrour Barzani is steering the region towards a place where civilians will lose all trust in government as well as justice

In Baghdad, only the elites profit from a system where they control every part of the political, governmental and judicial apparatus, leading to corruption, nepotism, self-enrichment and lawlessness. This became all too apparent when young people who had taken to the streets to demand better lives, were attacked, threatened, kidnapped and murdered by armed men defending the interests of the same elites they had voted into power.

Kurdistan has been badly impacted by this malaise, which sees corruption on the part of the powerful armed elites leading to the oppression of the masses, and rising desperation. As protests are stifled with force and the KDP presides over a justice system that seems to answer directly to the prime minister, lawlessness lies just around the corner.

The only hope left lies in the justice system's own will to defuse the accusations about its bias. Kurdistan's president Nechirvan Barzani indicated as much, as did his uncle, Adham Barzani.

Neither is on good terms with their cousin the prime minister, but their public statements indicate more than just a split within the family ranks. They also show that members of the ruling family and party are getting nervous about the damage Masrour's increasingly autocratic rule could cause.

The trial has only poured oil on a fire that was already burning

Kurds are born out of resistance, and the trial has only poured oil on a fire that was already burning. The Barzanis can no longer be sure that the Kurds' respect for their famous godfather Mustafa Barzani and his struggle for freedom will extend to them, too.

As in the rest of Iraq, many in Kurdistan no longer believe their leaders really have their best interests at heart. Kurds have fought oppression passionately and tirelessly in the past, and they are ready to fight for their freedom now, at any time.

Judit Neurink is a Dutch journalist and author specialised in Iraq. Her latest book, Geweld is nooit ver weg, (Violence Recycled) about her decade in Iraq, was recently published in the Netherlands.

Follow her on Twitter: @JuditNeurink

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.