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Prosecution's controversial case against activist Badal Barwari, journalist Omed Baroshki in disarray after Erbil trial

Activist Badal Barwari (L) and journalist Omed Baroshki(R) (NRT Digital Media)
AM:09:31:29/07/2021

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SULAIMANI — The controversial prosecution of activist Badal Barwari and journalist Omed Baroshki was thrown into disarray on Thursday (July 29) as key witnesses called by the prosecution denied to a court in Erbil that they made statements that the prosecution wanted to enter into evidence.

The pair face serious national security charges of undermining state independence, unity, and security, which could come with a sentence of life imprisonment if convicted. The prosecution is widely viewed as politically motivated retaliation for their criticism of the government and the ruling parties.

According to defense lawyer Ramazan Artisy, the prosecution brought forward several witnesses on Thursday, including imprisoned journalists Sherwan Sherwani and Ayaz Karam and activist Shvan Saeed, who told the court that statements that they allegedly made "did not belong to them."

Sherwani, Karam, and Saeed were convicted in February on the same charges, along with journalist Guhdar Zebari and activist Hariwan Issa. They were sentenced to six years in jail, with higher courts rejecting their appeals in May and June.

During that trial, the five defendants said that statements that the prosecution used as evidence against them were obtained through coercion or were simply made up. They also did not have access to lawyers during the period when those statements were taken.

The UN later voiced its concern about their treatment during interrogation and the lack of access to counsel.

On Thursday, Sherwani, Karam, and Saeed strongly reiterated that the alleged statements attributed to them were untrue and instead went further to praise Barwari and Baroshki as human rights defenders.

"By this admission, they confirmed that both of [the defendants] are innocent," Artisy told reporters.

A representative of Christian Peacemaker Teams, a human rights group whose members observed proceedings on Thursday, told NRT that judges also wanted to hear directly from "secret witnesses" that were cited in the prosecution’s case, but were not present in court.

Following those developments, the judges decided to adjourn, postponing the case until September 30.

Another defense lawyer, Aso Hashim, told reporters that "the investigation process in this case was extremely illegal. There is no legal evidence against them that would make them criminals," referring to Barwari and Baroshki.

"The court should call on all the witnesses to be present at the next hearing and we expect them to be released then," Hashim added.

Other than procedural hearings last fall, this is the first time that Barwari and Baroski have had the opportunity to refute the charges against them at trial since they were arrested nearly a year ago by security forces affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) as part of a crackdown on journalists and activists in Duhok.

They will remain in pre-trial detention for the time being, despite not being convicted of a crime.

Rights groups have accused the KRG of abusing the practice of pre-trial detention, using it as a way to punish critics while avoiding having to prove a case in court.

One of Barwari’s sons confirmed to NRT previous observations made by human rights groups that Barwari has lost a significant amount of weight since his arrest.

"My father was 110 kilos [242 pounds] when he was arrested, which has now fallen to 60 kilos [132 pounds]," Ary Badal claimed.

An NRT reporter at Sherwani's trial in February observed that the journalist had also visibly lost weight while in detention compared with photos taken before his arrest.

A teacher by profession, Barwari was first arrested in May 2020 on the morning of a protest he helped organize in Duhok city. Approximately 100 people were later arrested at the demonstration itself. He was released after fifteen days in jail.

As economic conditions deteriorated over the summer and public frustration mounted over the government’s handling of the crisis, Barwari and Baroshki were both arrested on August 18.

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.

Thursday’s trial follows several other controversial prosecutions of activists and journalists from Duhok and Erbil governorates over the past year, which rights groups have argued rely on circumstantial and flimsy evidence, often coming from secret and unidentified sources.

The cases also raise serious concerns about judicial independence and the influence of powerful politicians over court decisions.

Days before the February trial, Barzani appeared personally intervene in the outcome, telling a press conference that the defendants were "spies" and accusing them of acts which were not proven in court.

Nine other activists were due to stand trial this month on the same national security charges, but their trials were postponed until the fall.

(NRT Digital Media)

This story was updated at 3:44 p.m. EBL