UK says concerned about 'shortcomings' in detention, trial of journalists, activists

A UK flag flutters near the Houses of Parliament in central London on March 27, 2019. (Tolga Akmen/AFP)

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SULAIMANI — The UK Consulate General in Erbil issued a statement on Tuesday (May 11) saying that it was concerned about the way that the Kurdistan Region’s judiciary and security forces handled the cases of five imprisoned journalists and activists, whose appeal against their controversial convictions was denied last week.

On May 6, the Court of Cassation in Erbil denied the appeal of journalists Sherwan Sherwani, Guhdar Zebari, and Ayaz Karam and activists Shvan Saeed Omar and Hariwan Issa against their conviction in February for allegedly attempting to undermine the security of the state. They were each sentenced to six years in prison.

All five defendants were arrested last autumn as part of a crackdown on protest organizers and journalists by the security forces in Duhok, which are affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

They all strongly deny the charges against them and have said that some of the evidence put forward by prosecutors was obtained through coercion. Their lawyers have raised numerous procedural objections, including being denied effective access to their clients.

The trial and sentences have been widely criticized by human rights groups and press freedom watchdogs as symbolic of deteriorating freedom of expression and the press in the Kurdistan Region.

In the document formalizing the decision, the court alleged that the defendants “contacted both US and German consulates and received an amount of money,” an accusation that was roundly criticized by the diplomatic community.

The UK consulate tweeted on Tuesday, five days after the appeal denial was announced and after the Kurdistan Region’s other partners in Europe and North America had already released statements, that it had “seen the verdict.”

“We are concerned at a series of allegations of shortcomings in the circumstances of their detention and in the trial process,” it said.

“We are also surprised by the references to meetings with foreign consulates in court documents; meeting with foreign diplomats should not be a crime. The UK calls for full and scrupulous adherence to due process and the rule of law in the [Kurdistan Region], as everywhere else in the world,” it added.

(NRT Digital Media)