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PEN Sydney open letter to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)

The family of prisoners who are on hunger strike outside Erbil prison
The family of prisoners who are on hunger strike, outside the court in Erbil.


PEN Sydney is calling on the KRG to release all arrested journalists and political activists immediately. PEN Sydney is also reacting to worrying reports from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KR-I) where 81 jailed journalists and activists staged a hunger strike in protest at their inhumane treatment by the KRG authorities.

Many human rights groups, journalist associations and media organisations have been reporting about the increasing number of human rights breaches in the KR-I.

The Kurdistan Journalists' Syndicate (KJS) reported there were 138 violations of media and journalists' rights during 2020 in Iraqi Kurdistan, including arbitrary arrests and physical attacks.

Imprisoned journalist Sherwan Sherwani told Nalia Radio and Television (NRT) that almost all the 81 journalists arrested in Duhok last year were now on a hunger strike. The spokesperson for the families of detainees anxiously told the media these journalists and activists have been on a hunger strike since September 6, they have been denied their basic rights and that some of them were in a “very bad” condition.

Amnesty International has spoken out about the deteriorating security situation in KRG. Lynn Maalouf, their Deputy Director for Middle East and North Africa, said “Authorities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq have launched a chilling crackdown in their efforts to silence critics over the past year. They have rounded up activists and journalists and are prosecuting them on trumped-up charges in unfair trials and harassing or intimidating family members who were kept in the dark about the status of their loved ones,”.

We note that Badinan activists and journalists (images above), Sherwan Sherwani, Guhdar Zebari, Hariwan Issa, Ayaz Karam, and Shvan Saeed lost their appeal to their six-year prison sentence in The Kurdistan Region’s Court of Appeal in Erbil on 28 April this year. The charges brought against the five activists and journalists include spying for the USA, Britain, and Germany, sending sensitive information to foreign entities and cooperating with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).  

But Human Rights Watch on 22 April 2021 described this court decision as “flawed”. Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch said, “Flaunting the most basic principles of justice to punish people for allegedly planning protests is a new low.” He warned the KRG, “These recent convictions only further compound the Kurdistan Region's worsening reputation as a place where people can face unfair criminal trials merely for critiquing government policies they object to and expressing concerns about the political elites”.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also raised their grave concern about these arbitrary rulings and called for the immediate release of the imprisoned journalists, accused of “undermining national security”, a charge carrying a possible life sentence. 

According to RSF Sherwani, Zebari and Karam were arrested in October 2020 after social media posts echoing protesters’ demands and complaints, including complaints about delays in paying the salaries of state employees and allegations of government corruption. They added,“Two other journalists are currently detained in Iraqi Kurdistan. Omed Baroshki was arrested on 18 August 2020 and Qahraman Shukri was arrested at his home on 27 January 2021 on grounds that are not yet known, after criticising online the political repression carried out by the KRG”. Qahraman Shukri is the son of Shukri Zaynadin, a journalist who died in still unexplained circumstances in late 2016. His son insists he was the victim of a “political murder.”

Abducted and killed 1987

Abducted and murdered in 2010: Journalist Sardasht Osman

Assassinated in 2008: journalist Soran Mama Hama

Assassinated in 2013: journalist Kaweh Garmyani

Assassinated in 2016: journalist Wadad Hossain

This is not the first time that journalists have been killed or assassinated in KR-I. Media activist Sardasht Osman was abducted and killed in 2010, Soran Mama Hama, a journalist with Levin magazine was killed in 2008 and journalist Kaweh Garmyani was assassinated in front of his mother in 2013, they had all received death threats. Wadad Hossain, a reporter for Rojnews was killed in 2016.

In June 2021 The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) General Secretary, Anthony Bellanger, strongly condemned the arrest and killing of journalists in Kurdistan and labelled these acts as “violations, irreconcilable with freedom and democracy.” He told KRG authorities that the role of journalists is to inform the public and reminded the KRG and Iraqi government of their obligations, “In times of a pandemic, journalists should not face restrictions in accessing information. The public has a fundamental right to know and any attempt to obstruct journalists’ work violates this right and must be strictly condemned. We demand that the authorities of the Kurdistan region of Iraq and the Iraqi Federal Government guarantee freedom of the media and let our colleagues work without fear or threats”.

PEN Sydney strongly condemns the persecution, arrests, torture, arbitrary rulings and assassination of journalists and political activists in The Kurdistan region of Iraq. PEN Sydney believes these actions by KRG are a direct suppression of freedom of expression and the censoring of the dissemination of information and ideas by journalists. We call for an immediate unconditional release of all imprisoned journalists and activists. People in the Kurdistan region of Iraq are frustrated with corruption, unpaid wages and lack of transparency. 

PEN Sydney will send this letter to Kurdistan, Iraqi and international media organisations and human rights organisations in Australia and internationally. We ask for your support.

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