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Four Duhok activists and teachers given one year prison sentences by Erbil court; one acquitted of charges

Presidency of Appellate Court Erbil Region building (File)
AM:11:19:21/10/2021

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SULAIMANI — Four activists and teachers from Duhok were convicted of criminal conspiracy and sentenced to one year in prison by a court in Erbil on Thursday (October 21) after being arrested as a part of a crackdown on protest organizers in the governorate. A fifth defendant was acquitted. 

They have been kept in pre-trial detention for more than a year. The group will likely be released soon on the basis of time served, most having been arrested on either September 4 or September 5 last year.

The four defendants who were convicted are Sleman Kamal, Sleman Musa, Jamal Khalil, and Firsat Ahmed.

The fifth defendant who was found not guilty is Amr Khalid.

They were tried under Article 56 of the Iraqi Penal Code, one of their defense lawyers Bashdar Hassan told NRT.

One observer who was in the courtroom told NRT that Musa angrily denounced the court's conduct, saying that he was not guilty of any crime. All five defendants maintained their innocence of the charges in statements to the court on Thursday.

Another observer who was in the courtroom told reporters gathered outside the court that he believed "in a just and fair court, but I didn’t see that today."

The convictions cap three days of controversial trials in Erbil, which many observers view as politically motivated retribution by senior members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) against activists and journalists for speaking out against the party's economic and financial policies.

In the summer of 2020, economic conditions were deteriorating in the Kurdistan Region and public servants were not being paid by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), leading to widespread and growing frustration.

Protests in Duhok had occurred earlier in the spring, but had been quashed by the local security forces, which are affiliated with the KDP. With the prospect of new and larger protests looming in the summer and fall, the Asayish and police rounded up protest organizers, journalists, and ordinary citizens in an effort to snuff out public displays of criticism.

On Tuesday, activist and teacher Badal Barwari and journalist Omed Baroshki were convicted of Article 222 of the Iraqi Penal Code, which concerns involvement with illegal gatherings that incite violence, and sentenced to one year in prison, though the two defendants maintained their innocence of the charges.

Barwari was released on Wednesday and returned home to Duhok.

In separate hearings in June, September, and October, Baroshki was convicted of two counts of violating Article 2 of the Communications Device Misuse law and three counts of defamation and was sentenced to a two and a half years in prison on those counts, along with his one year sentence from Tuesday's conviction. He remains behind bars.

On Wednesday, the court postponed the trial of four other activists from Duhok until November 8.

 

The situation has seriously hurt the Kurdistan Region's reputation on the world stage as it sought to fend off criticism of its human rights record.

Foreign and local watchdogs have expressed alarm about the deterioration of freedom of the press and expression in the Kurdistan Region since Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, who is a senior KDP official, took office in July 2019.

According to the Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy there were at least 385 violations against 291 journalists and media agencies during 2020, including assaults, arrests, office closures, and harassing lawsuits.

In February, journalists Sherwan Sherwani, Guhdar Zebari, and Ayaz Karam and activists Shvan Saeed and Hariwan Issa were convicted on serious national security charges, which the defendants strongly denied.

Higher courts twice denied their appeals and they remain behind bars.

Journalist Qaraman Shukri was sentenced to seven years in prison on the same charges in a secret trial earlier this summer.

Following the news on Thursday that the defendants would soon be released, family members of the five defendants expressed their happiness that their family members would be free.

"I’m happy today and I wish all those who are imprisoned be released very soon,” Musa's mother told NRT.

"I just want to see my brother again," his sister said.

(NRT Digital Media)

This story was updated at 12:34 p.m. EBL