‘No regime, state, or entity will continue without justice’: lawyers defending Duhok journalists, activists

Serious rule of law violations by senior officials
Defense lawyers representing five journalists and activists sentenced to six years in prison during a press conference on February 25, 2021 (NRT Digital Media/Screenshot)

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SULAIMANI — Defense lawyers representing five journalists and activists sentenced to six years in prison said on Thursday (February 25) that the verdict issued by the court was “illegal” and designed to oppress their clients.

“No regime, state, or entity will continue without justice,” lawyer Emad Hamid said during a press conference.

Journalists Sherwan Sherwani, Guhdar Zebari, and Ayaz Karam and activists Shvan Saeed Omar and Hariwan Issa were detained in Duhok governorate as part of a crackdown on protest organizers and journalists by the local security forces, which are affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

They were convicted of conspiring to undermine the security of the Kurdistan Region, despite the defendants denying the charges and saying that their confessions contained things they never said and had been obtained through coercion.

During the press conference, Hamid said that the defense team realized the “danger” that their clients were in after high-ranking officials began making remarks prejudicing the outcome of the trial. At that point, they began to believe that the process was unlikely to be fairly adjudicated.

The week before the trial, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Masrour Barzani said that the defendants were spies and were planning acts of sabotage and violence, but did not provide any proof.

During the trial, the evidence presented against the five defendants was circumstantial and, in some cases, obtained from secret, unnamed sources. Despite the defendants’ objections to their confessions, they were accepted as prepared by the prosecution and investigators.

Hamid said that their “fear” about whether rule of law would carry the day proved to be well founded when the detainees were “unfairly” sentenced to prison on the basis of unproven accusations about actions that are not criminal under the law.

In the days after the verdict, an Erbil court issued arrest warrants for three other journalists and activists in Duhok who are charged with violating the same statute used against the five original defendants, which is Law 21 (2003) of the Iraqi Penal Code and carries the potential for a life sentence.

The case has brought significant attention to the deteriorating state of freedom of expression and the press in the Kurdistan Region, in addition to the apparent backsliding by the government and parties regarding adherence to the principles of democracy and rule of law.

On Thursday, the Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy said in a Facebook post that the KRG should “work on the simple fact that the improvement of civil work and the freedom to criticize are signs of the existence of a strong and democratic authority.”

(NRT Digital Media)