For the past year, our team in Iraqi Kurdistan has been accompanying 81 activists from the Badinan region. They have been imprisoned for speaking out against the government and falsely charged for acts of espionage and sabotage. I have been inspired daily by these activists who have continued to bravely live in love amidst incredible suffering.
Years ago, I read 1984 by George Orwell, a novel whose characters haunted me by how quickly close friends and family could turn on each other as government informants. Winston’s neighbour is handed over to the thought police by his own children. Winston himself lives in constant fear of all his acquaintances and is eventually betrayed and betrays those around him in return. This story isn’t just a depiction of Soviet Russia, and it isn’t limited to fascist or communist governments. If you have spent time in peace or environmental movements in Western countries, you will be familiar with the general paranoia of undercover police posing as newcomers, based on many lived experiences of this infiltration tactic.
To build transformative relationships and live out of a framework of love rather than fear, we need to balance this reality with a refusal to succumb to hurtful and alienating mistrust of strangers and friends. The Badinan Activists show us the power of trust in resisting a violent and oppressive system.
The first trial I attended was on 12 July. Similar to many of the Badinan cases, the courts were charging Masoud Ali, Sherwan Taha, Karger Abas and Bandawar Ayoub under Article 156 of Law No. 111 (1969) of the Iraqi Penal Code. They were being accused of, “acts prejudicial to the security, stability and sovereignty of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.” The evidence against them was the witness statements of five of their friends and fellow activists.
I can’t imagine what it would have felt like as they stood in that tiny cage in the courtroom. After almost a year in prison where they were threatened, starved and prohibited from contact with family and lawyers, they were finally before a judge. They may have held a slim hope that justice would be served, and they would finally be freed. But then the prosecution called their first witness, and it was their friend, their fellow prisoner. They would have experienced the same suffering and intimidation to sign a confession, and they must have wondered if their friend had succumbed to the pressure.
The Judge read out the accusations and witness statements given to him from the investigation. These included serious plans to amass weapons for an armed group, give information to foreign governments and plan two assassinations of political party members. As the lawyers had been unable to meet the Activists before the trial, it is unclear if they knew they would be accused of these things. Perhaps from their own interrogations at the hands of security forces, or conversations they had had with other accused friends, they had gathered some information.
The witness came into the room, facing the Judge and averting his gaze from his friends in their tiny cage. He was handcuffed and had lost considerable weight; many friends would have trouble recognising him. They are all in this state. Their hair had lost colour, and their clothes were tied at the waist to stop them from falling down. They have suffered, and we could see some of the physical evidence. But the witness stood tall. His name is Sleman Musa, and the following day, he will have his turn to appear before the Judges. He has a Bachelor of Law and History and was a headmaster of a school in Akre for four years. He has a wife and six children waiting for him to come home.
He stood in the courtroom while families gathered outside yelled out for the release of the Badinan Activists. Their calls could be heard every time a prisoner walked through the door: “Azadi, Azadi!” Inside with him were parliamentarians and international observers who have not been able to secure his release, friends who stood caged together, three judges belonging to the political party that arrested him, and security personnel carrying Kalashnikovs. It must have taken a lot of bravery for him to give his statement, but he said it with force and confidence: “I am not a witness against these people. They are not criminals. I know three of them personally, and they were not part of any criminal group that I know of.”
One by one, the other four witnesses were brought in, and their declarations were just as strong. Despite the threats against themselves and their families and despite knowing they are likely to be jailed for six years, they refused to succumb to the fear. They chose instead to live in love and defend freedom and truth.
Before being arrested last year in a widespread crackdown on freedom of expression, many of these prisoners barely knew each other. Yet they have held together—fighting for each other through hunger strikes, court declarations and sneaking out information. They have even used their time in prison to advocate for other prisoners (who were not part of the 81) to break stories of untold political oppression.
Through the strength of the Badinan Activists, we know that the story of 1984 isn’t the inevitable story of humanity under pressure. We can still choose love over fear.