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Journalist Who Pressed For Womens' Rights In Iraq Found Dead

  • RFE/RL

The Iraq director of an organization promoting journalism and womens' rights in the war-torn country has been found dead in unexplained circumstances at Istanbul's main airport, her organization said October 19.

Friends and co-workers of Jacqueline Sutton called for an urgent investigation into her death, which comes months after her predecessor was killed in a bombing.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting said Sutton, its British-born country director for Iraq, was found dead on October 17 after flying in from London en route to her base in Irbil in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.

The group said it was still trying to "establish the facts" surrounding her death. Turkish press reports said she was found hanged in the toilets.

Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency said Sutton took her own life inside a washroom at the airport after missing her connecting flight. The agency reported, without citing a source, that she became distraught because she didn't have money to buy a new ticket to Iraq.

Turkey's private Dogan news agency said Sutton hanged herself with shoelaces from the hook of the bathroom door, also without citing a source. Her body was discovered by three Russian tourists who alerted police, Dogan said.

Sutton's colleagues and friends were skeptical about the accounts published in the Turkish press.

"None of us believes she took her own life," said Vanessa Farr, who worked with Sutton in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. "But all of us know she was attracting negative attention for her absolute refusal, before UN officials, politicians, and warlords alike, to stay silent in the face of what she was witnessing women suffer."

Farr said Sutton had recently helped win a $1 million grant for her journalism institute to counter the violent misogyny of the Islamic State group.

"Her work was extremely difficult and she was a fearlessly courageous defender of women's rights; but she was a strong and happy person, passionately engaged in her work, loved by many," Farr said.

Anthony Borden, the group's executive director, said Sutton "devoted herself to professional journalism."

"In respect to that, we should look at the facts," he said. "We need more facts."

Iraq's parliament speaker Salim al-Juburi "called on the Turkish authorities to uncover the circumstances of the incident," his office said. "She passed away in mysterious circumstances in a Turkish airport on her way to Iraq, which she was planning to visit to help the country".

Free-speech group Article 19 said it was "deeply saddened and shocked" by Sutton's death and called for "a full and independent investigation."

Borden said Sutton would have known that the organization would have paid for a new flight, a relatively common occurrence.

"Clearly there would have been no issue (with money). It's really inconceivable. We change tickets all the time," he said.

Security officials at Ataturk Airport did not answer calls seeking a comment. A Turkish government spokesman could not immediately be reached.

Sutton, 50, was a former broadcaster with the BBC and held various positions with humanitarian organizations and the United Nations, according to her professional profile on LinkedIn.

At the time of her death, she was working on a PhD on the position of female journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan at the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Sutton was appointed to the journalism institute's Iraq office in June after the death of the previous country director, Ammar Al Shahbander, who was killed in a car bombing in Baghdad, the organization said.

Borden said Sutton had taken over an "extraordinary burden" from her late colleague. He said there was no reason to think the deaths are related.

"She had toys in her bag for the children of staff" in Iraq, he said.

The Turkish press reports that she killed herself don't "strike me as right," he said. "I can't get my head around it."

With reporting by AFP and AP
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