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Iraq: Kurdish Media Complain Of Harassment

The memorial site at Halabjah, which was the scene of the March 16 demonstration (file photo) (AFP) Freedoms of speech and of the press in Iraqi Kurdistan are being called into question following the arrests of several journalists and intellectuals in recent months. As independent Kurdish media outlets push for greater press freedoms, Kurdish government officials blame outdated laws for the arrests.

Justice Minister Hadi Ali has said that part of the problem is that many Kurdish judges are beholden to security and intelligence agencies of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), reported on March 27. Ali, a member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, a political party that clashed with the KDP last year, said the regional judiciary is open to abuse because there aren't adequate laws to guarantee civil liberties.

Bad Laws Or Bad Parties?

"Because of the problems between the two parties, the parliament has not been able to make laws to help justice work as it should," said Ali. "We canceled Saddam Hussein's revolutionary court, but in Kurdistan we are still using the old Iraqi judicial system that we used 80 years ago."

Several journalists said they were beaten, arrested, and had their equipment confiscated on March 16 following a government crackdown on demonstrators who violently interrupted a ceremony marking the 18th anniversary of the Hussein regime's chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabjah.

A Controversial Demonstration

Some 500 Kurds had planned a sit-in during the ceremony to protest the lack of services and compensation for the victims of Halabjah, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) reported a day before the demonstration. Protesters claimed the two leading Kurdish parties -- the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the KDP -- had kept the town in a dilapidated state for publicity purposes, IWPR reported. The government brought in security forces to confront the 2,000 demonstrators on March 16, and violence broke out. Some demonstrators charged the memorial museum, burning down the Halabjah monument to the martyrs.

Immediately television channels owned by the two parties identified the attackers as "outsiders" and implied the perpetrators were linked to Islamist terrorist groups.

Journalists caught up in the melee reported being beaten by both security forces and demonstrators. Several journalists working for independent Kurdish media outlets said security forces destroyed or confiscated their cameras and video recorders. The journalists claimed no similar action was taken against party-owned media, implying that the PUK and KDP would prevent their own press from broadcasting footage of the incident.

Other journalists said their equipment and film were confiscated at checkpoints outside the town.

Stiff Penalties For Destruction Of State Property

Later, investigative judge Karwan Wrya Ali told that the 42 demonstrators taken into custody could face the death penalty if convicted. Ali said the punishment for destroying government property is life in prison or death by hanging. Deputy Prime Minister Emad Ahmad (PUK), who earlier labeled the incident an "act of sabotage," told the website: "I don't think those convicted will be executed if the charges are proven."

IWPR reported on March 23 that Kurdish authorities had demanded that journalists cooperate with the investigation by turning over any notes, photographs, and footage taken at the demonstration. The Kurdish Journalists' Syndicate, widely seen as an arm of the government, supported the demand, IWPR reported.

Independent Weekly Stands Up To The Government

Twana Osman, editor in chief of the independent weekly newspaper "Hawlati," refused the request, saying the government was making undemocratic demands.

"Hawlati" called the March 16 demonstration "a form of expression that reveals people's discontent and anger against the policies of the two Kurdish governing parties" in a March 22 editorial. The newspaper also contended that the government does not tolerate independent Kurdish media.

The newspaper refuted claims by both parties that the demonstration was carried out by "outsiders." "For over 13 years, no demonstrations have been staged for which the hand of sabotage has not been found on which to peg all the shameful deeds and scandals of the two party-led regional governments," the weekly wrote.

Other Arrests

A day after the Halabjah incident, PUK security forces arrested Hawez Hawezi, a teacher and journalist working for "Hawlati," on the grounds that he had criticized the two parties in the press. Citing corruption and cronyism within both administrations, Hawezi called on Kurdish officials to step down in a March 15 article published in "Hawlati."

"Today, a history of nightmares is about to be repeated, but it enters our daily lives in different images and forms which are not different from those Ba'athist policies which had killed our souls," wrote Hawezi, adding: "the complacence and indifference of Kurdish officials over the daily crises of the lives of people have reached the degree of blindness. Therefore, I ask the officials...either leave this country and go into exile or give up power now."

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a March 22 press release that Hawezi was released on bail on March 19 after appearing before an investigating judge. "The judge told the journalist he faced unspecified defamation charges," the organization reported.

"We oppose the imprisonment of journalists for what they write or for expressing their opinions. But there is writing, and there is insult," PUK spokesman Azad Jundyany told CPJ. "There is a difference between the two."

"Hawlati" criticized Hawezi's arrest in a March 22 editorial. "The detention of a journalist for expressing his views and charging him with 'going too far against public rights' and 'inciting an uprising' is nothing but a sign of the unsettlement and cracking up of a force that is afraid that an article, a criticism, or a boo would lead to its downfall," the weekly wrote.

The Case Of Kamal Sayyid Qadir

Hawezi's arrest follows the arrest and subsequent conviction of Kurdish-born Austrian Kamal Sayyid Qadir by KDP security forces last year. Qadir had criticized KDP head Mas'ud Barzani and his party of corruption in a series of Internet articles. He was arrested in October upon entering Kurdistan. In December, he was sentenced to 30 years in Kurdish prison for "defamation of the Kurdish leadership." That conviction was overturned and Qadir was sentenced to 18 months in prison on lesser charges on March 26.

At the time of his initial conviction, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) defended its action, saying Qadir was charged according to the Kurdish 2003 law No. 21, Article 1, on the defamation of public institutions.

Kamal Sayyid Qadir (AFP file photo)

Judge Faridun Abdallah called the most recent sentence "fair" and "proportionate to the charges against" Qadir, Reuters reported on March 27. "We helped him," Abdallah said. "We took into consideration that he is an academic and has served in the education field. So we sentenced him to a year and a half. Otherwise we would have sentenced him to five years."

Irbil provincial Governor Nawzad Hadi Mawlud told that Qadir's writings endangered Kurds. "Kamal wrote that we sold Kurdish land to Israel -- that kind of talk is very dangerous to us," said Mawlud. "Our neighbors -- Turkey, Iran, the Arabs -- nobody would accept this, and the fact that a Kurd is writing these accusations makes them more credible. These writings could lead them to try to destroy us, to attack us."

Meanwhile, PUK representative to Washington Qubad Talabani told CNN on March 26 that Barzani might pardon Qadir. "Maybe it's time to revise certain laws. We are an emerging democracy. We need to improve our institutions," Talabani said.