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Civil society in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) is experiencing a crackdown on freedom of expression; security forces have incarcerated an alarming amount of civil rights activists and journalists. Since August 2020, an estimated 76 journalists, activists and teachers from the Badinan region have been arrested by security forces and imprisoned in Erbil.
On 12 and 13 July, members of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) observed the trials for nine Badinan activists who were arrested in 2020 on charges of endangering national security and committing acts of espionage. They have been awaiting trial for almost a year.
CPT is gravely concerned about the due process in both court trials, as the prosecution has not presented reasonable evidence to support the accusations against the nine Badinan prisoners. All evidence used against the activists has thus far relied on testimony from one unidentified witness who was not present for the court proceedings. There is no evidence yet to suggest the witness exists or that such a witness knew the nine Badinan prisoners. In addition to this lack of evidence from an unidentified witness, it is concerning that the judge would accuse the defendants of committing acts of espionage for meeting with consulates and government representatives.
Two of the defendants did not have a lawyer to represent them in their court trials. A family member of one of these defendants reported to CPT that the defendant was threatened and harassed by security forces into refusing legal representation. Security forces have prevented lawyers from having any contact with the remaining defendants; therefore, their clients are unable to provide any evidence for their defence. One of the defendants reported that he was threatened that his wife would be raped if he did not confess to the accusations brought against him in court.
Family members have limited access to meet with their loved ones in prison—some have seen their families only once since their incarceration. These families are also concerned about their loved ones’ health. The family of Sleman Kamal reported to CPT that his body had become very weak while he was in prison—Sleman himself declared that he was not receiving enough food to eat in prison. CPT observed in court that many defendants have lost weight and appear malnourished since their incarceration in Asaish prison.
These recent court trials are a part of a larger attempt by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) at suppressing freedom of expression in Iraqi Kurdistan. The first to be impacted by this escalating repression were Sherwan Sherwani, Guhdar Zebari, Eyaz Karam, Shivan Saeed, and Hariwan Essa, found guilty of espionage and destabilizing national security on 16 February 2021. These five journalists and civil rights activists were charged with conducting acts of espionage for speaking to representatives of the United States Consulate General, United Nations and International Organizations. The nine Badinan prisoners are similarly being accused of conducting espionage for international consulates and governing bodies once again.
The cases of the nine Badinan prisoners and their families are a critical concern for the Kurdistan Region. Freedom of expression, as it stands, is on trial in Iraqi Kurdistan. Any sentencing of the nine Badinan activists sets a precedent in the Iraqi Kurdistan region for freedom of expression to be criminalized, further suppressing civil society’s ability to hold governing bodies accountable.