KRG’s Zebari defends prosecution of journalists, activists after scathing HRW report

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Coordinator for International Advocacy Dindar Zebari speaks during a press conference on April 22, 2021 (NRT Digital Media/Screenshot)

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SULAIMANI — Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Coordinator for International Advocacy Dindar Zebari on Thursday (April 22) attempted to defend the KRG against a scathing report by Human Rights Watch about the trial and sentencing of five journalists and activists from Duhok governorate in February.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that “the proceedings in the Erbil Criminal Court were marred by serious violations of fair trial standards as well as high-level political interference.”

In response, Zebari said that "the court is independent of the government and political institutions of the Kurdistan Region and KRG will not interfere in legal processes."

Days ahead of the trial, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani accused the defendants of being spies and saboteurs without providing evidence. Members of the judiciary in Erbil tend to be associated with Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

Journalists Sherwan Sherwani, Guhdar Zebari, and Ayaz Karam and activists Shvan Saeed Omar and Hariwan Issa were arrested last autumn as part of a crackdown on protest organizers and journalists by the security forces in Duhok, which are also affiliated with the KDP.

On February 16, they were convicted of conspiring to undermine the security of the Kurdistan Region, eliciting widespread criticism.

Zebari added that “the arresting decisions are carried out only by court order, and these detainees in [Duhok] were accused of collecting secret information and giving them to foreigners, directly endangering the lives of Kurdish and foreign officials in Kurdistan.”

According to independent observers cited by HRW, the evidence presented at trial regarding this claim was flimsy at best and defense lawyers were not able to cross examine witnesses to probe the veracity of their accusations.

No concrete evidence of spying on behalf of foreign entities was presented at trial. Many of the allegations made by the prosecution were based on information obtained from secret witnesses. In statements, KRG officials have variously accused the defendants of passing information to an unlikely array of state and non-state actors, including the US, Iran, and the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK).

Zebari continued that “as defendants, they were represented by their lawyers in the courtroom and they met their lawyers during their detention and it is important to know that the court's decision was not related to the journalistic work of the accused.”

The defendants and their lawyers have complained repeatedly about lack of access to basic information about the case. Defense counsel was not permitted to see much of the evidence until it was presented by the prosecution at trial. They were only able to briefly meet with their clients’ moments ahead of the start of the trial.

The defendants also said that their statements were obtained through coercion. They continue to attest to their innocence and have filed an appeal.

Zebari also claimed that “the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) had access to the detainees,” but did not say whether that was before or after the trial and under what conditions imposed by the Asayish.

(NRT Digital Media)