HEWLÊR-Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan region,— A group of journalists and activists from Duhok who were arrested last year and accused of endangering national security, went on trial on Monday in Erbil.
Activist Badal Barwari and journalists Sherwan Sherwani and Omed Baroshki are among those set to stand trial and are accused of serious charges of undermining state independence, unity, or security, which could come with life imprisonment if convicted.
While some lawyers for the defense were allowed in the court, Harem Rafaat who represents journalist Guhdar Zebari told NRT TV that he had been prevented from attending the hearing, with the court disputing his status as a lawyer for his client.
They were all arrested in 2020 when the local Kurdish security forces, which are affiliated with the Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) cracked down on activists for organizing and participating in protests over the government’s policy of cutting and delaying payment of public sector salaries amid increasing poverty and joblessness in the private sector.
Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Masrour Barzani appeared to intervene personally in the case last week, condemning the defendants as “spies” and accusing them of planning acts of violence and sabotage, but did not provide evidence to back his allegations.
The prime minister’s comments raised serious concerns about whether the activists and journalists would get a fair hearing in court.
In December, the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote a letter to Barzani urging him to “live up” to promises to allow “the free exercise of press freedom” in the Kurdistan Region.
Also in December 2020, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Geneva-based MENA Rights Group (MRG) have asked UN human rights experts to do everything possible to obtain the immediate and unconditional release of Sherwan Sherwani, a Kurdish journalist who has been held for the past months by the authorities in northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region.
Violations against journalists and media workers are a routine occurrence in Iraqi Kurdistan Region, despite legal and constitutional protections for freedom of expression and the press.
Iraqi Kurdistan is not a unified region, it is divided politically and geographically between the KDP led by Massoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan PUK party led by the Talabani’s family. Erbil and Duhok governorates are controlled by the Barzanis and Sulaimani by Talabanis.