Court in Erbil sentences five journalists, activists to six-year prison terms

Case seen as politically motivated
Families of journalists and activists arrested last year react following the verdict in front of the Erbil Appellate Court building on February 16, 2021 (NRT Digital Media/Winthrop Rodgers)

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SULAIMANI — In a case seen as emblematic of the deterioration of freedom of expression and the press in the Kurdistan Region in recent years, five journalists and activists were each sentenced to six years in prison by a court in Erbil on Tuesday (February 16).

After a trial lasting less than nine hours over the course of two days, journalists Sherwan Sherwani, Guhdar Zebari, and Ayaz Karam and activists Shvan Saeed Omar and Hariwan Issa were convicted of violating Section 1 of Law 21 (2003) of the Iraqi Penal Code, which criminalizes actions that undermine the independence, unity, or security of the country.

Their family members, who had been waiting nervously outside the courtroom all day, broke into tears at the news.

The defendants all denied the charges against them and the case has been heavily criticized as politically motivated by local and international watchdogs.

The evidence presented by the prosecution and a representative of the Kurdistan Region’s Security Council during the trial’s second day was largely circumstantial and several of the defendants, who were held in a cage in the courtroom during proceedings, told the judge that they had never said some of things that were contained in the confessions read to the court.

The five journalists and activists were arrested in Duhok governorate last autumn by the local security forces, which are affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), in an effort to suppress criticism of the government’s decisions to cut and delay payment of public sector salaries amid deteriorating economic conditions.

Dozens of protest organizers and participants including teacher Badal Barwari were arrested, as were journalists who tried to report on the protests and the arrests. Barwari had been part of the trial’s first day, but the court has sent his case back to the investigative court for further hearings.

On Monday, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to drop the charges against Sherwani, Zebari, and Karam.

“If the KRG claims to support journalists and respect their rights, it must consent to letting them cover public interest issues, including those journalists who are the most critical of its current policies,” Head of RSF’s Middle East desk Sabrina Bennoui said in a statement.

Several Change Movement (Gorran) lawmakers were present in the courtroom throughout the second day of the trial and heavily criticized the verdict afterwards.

Head of the Gorran caucus in the Kurdistan Parliament Gulistan Said said that none of the evidence presented during the trial showed that the detainees had done any acts of destruction or espionage and described the trial as political.

Lawmaker Ali Hama Salih told reporters that he hoped the case will be settled professionally and neutrally on appeal.

“Today’s court verdicts are another black stain on this authority and another shame for the judicial system in the Kurdistan Region,” Deputy Head of the New Generation Movement caucus in the Kurdistan Parliament Kawa Abudlqadr said in a Facebook post.

Barwari’s lawyer Aso Hashim said that if the case was heard in a “just court” then the detainees would have been declared as “innocents.”

He said that the decision has led the defense team to stop using smartphones as a precaution against charges being cooked up against them as well.

Hashim added that the case would be appealed.

Following the verdict, comments last week by KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani making unfounded allegations against the defendants that did not appear in the evidence presented in court appeared all the more sinister.

“What I heard today was so so disappointing.” Christian Peacemaker Teams member Mohammed Salih told NRT.

“They already decided what to do. They already decided to punish people in a way that makes them silent…The evidence was very weak and it was not really enough to result in a six-year sentence.”

(NRT Digital Media)