Open letter to Pope Francis: A call for freedom

2/17/2021 6:54:11 PM

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Families of imprisoned journalists and activists
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A call for freedom for Sherwan Sherwani, Shvan Saeed, Ayaz Karam, Hariwan Issa, and Guhdar Zebari


To His Holiness Pope Francis,


We, the families of Sherwan Sherwani, Shvan Saeed, Ayaz Karam, Hariwan Issa, and Guhdar Zebari, like thousands of people in the Kurdistan Region and Iraq are honored to have Your Holiness visit this country soon to enlighten and spread a message of peace and reconciliation. In these days of conflict and fear, it is hard to set a clear agenda of priorities and issues to take on, but in our deep gratitude for your visit we would like to present the case of our loved ones who have been charged in politically motivated cases and sentenced six years in prison for doing one thing: being journalists and activists who call for freedom of expression, human rights and social and economic justice.

On the 16 February 2020 Sherwan Sherwani, Shvan Saeed, Ayaz Karam, Hariwan Issa and Guhdar Zebari were sentenced to six years in prison after a politically motivated, two-day trial, after having spent months in captivity already. They were put on trial for allegedly endangering the national security of the Kurdistan Region, although they just followed their occupation as journalists. The judiciary, which should act independently from the executive in our political system, acted with great political bias and there is heavy proof of that interference. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said following the court ruling that the “sentencing of journalists Sherwan Amin Sherwani and Guhdar Zebari is not only unfair and disproportionate, but it also proves that the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government has finally dropped the pretense of caring about press freedom.”

Great injustices and breaches of basic human rights were committed before and during the trial. On evening 7 October 2020, a group of gunmen from the police and Asayish raided the home of Sherwan Sherwani, handcuffing him and pointing a pistol at his head in front of his children, the eldest just being twelve-years-old. He was then taken to an unknown place. Ever since, his children have been traumatized. It is the fourth time that he has been arrested in such a manner. This injustice against him has now continued in front of the judge. Kurdistan Region MP Ali Hama Salih observed the court case and repeated for the public what Sherwan Sherwani said in court: “I’ve been threatened and blackmailed through my wife by the authorities, who threatened to rape my wife if I did not make a confession. Who would accept this injustice?” There are many indications that different forms of pressure and even torture were used to coerce the defendants into signing confessions.

The defendants are not treated as journalists in this case, but were called spies and traitors by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Masrour Barzani before their trial, which prejudiced the outcome. Many critical journalists in the Kurdistan Region who do not have the connections with party-affiliated media empires must use alternative avenues to distribute their work, like social media, and are therefore disenfranchised from established channels of journalistic work. This does not mean that they are any less of a journalist than their party-affiliated counterparts. The Journalist’s Syndicate of the Kurdistan Region shared a statement on 17 February saying how this is problematic and asking that the Press Law of the Kurdistan Region No 35 of 2007 be applied to their cases, instead of national security laws that treat them as traitors, spies and even terrorists.

Our only wish is for Kurdistan to progress. We want journalists to be able to write without fear of intimidation, torture or arrest. We want people to live in freedom and we do not want any child, like the children of Sherwan Sherwani, to be forced to watch the mechanizations of unfair courts, crying for their parent who is taken away from them. With great urgency we ask you, Your Holiness, for your help in telling the Kurdistan Regional Government to stop the arrest and intimidation of journalists and the violation of their rights.

Soon after your visit, the world will celebrate Easter, the holiday celebrating Christ’s resurrection. A figure of love, truth and blessing, he was unfairly sentenced for spreading the word of God. As much as they tried to stop his word, people followed his word and do so in this holy land to this day. This Easter, we would be deeply grateful if you could remind the Kurdistan Regional Government that the free word of humanity, equality and liberty should never be shut down and that human dignity is worth more than any regime’s survival. We ask for you, Your Holiness, to hear our plea, to use your voice of mercy and compassion to help free our innocent family members and to enable liberty and fraternity in the whole region.


With our sincerest regards to Your Holiness,

The families of Sherwan Sherwani, Shvan Saeed, Ayaz Karam, Hariwan Issa, and Guhdar Zebari