On 1 June, he French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, inaugurated the Embassy branch office (the future Consulate) in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region, in the presence of Nechirvan Barzani, the Region’s Primer Minister, the French ambassador, and Consul Frédéric Tissot. A crowd of about two hundred French-speaking public figures, ministers and diplomats attended this inauguration.
In his speech, Bernard Kouchner expressed his happiness at being in Kurdistan on this particular occasion: “I am very glad to be in Irbil, capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. I well remember some elements of this distinctive history, this history that concerns many other those here and also concerns History with a capital H, that concerns the Barzani family, that concerns the struggle of the Kurds. A moment ago, seeing the photo of Mustafa Barzani, the Prime Minister’s grandfather, I remembered that night in 1974, in September 1974, I think, when, for the first time, I met that great man, Mustafa Barzani. I then met the whole family, and this has lasted for years: Idriss and Massud, and now the Prime Minister. It is now nearly 40 years that some of us, including Frédéric (Tissot) and Alain Delouche (co-founder of Médecins du Monde) and others here have been waiting for this day. Of course, this day concerns the Kurdish people but it also concerns Iraq and all Iraqis. Because, I believe, for personal reasons that I do not think mistaken, the History of the Kurds prefigures the history of Iraq, its struggle to be free, to escape the dictatorship and to build a model for the Middle East”.
Bernard Kouchner then recalled his visit with Mrs. Mitterrand for the opening of the Irbil Parliament in 1992 and the difficult years that followed. He wanted to pay tribute to Abdulrahman Ghassemlou, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), assassinated by the Iranian secret services in Vienna, in 1989, as well as to all the fighters and activists for Human Rights in Kurdistan.
Insisting that this diplomatic representative office “will be transformed into a consulate very quickly”, the French Minister expressed his “deep desire that France should bring its presence and its help for the reconstruction of the political process of stabilising Iraq as a whole, for the necessary construction needed by the whole of Iraq, to the Middle East, in its difficulties, and, more than its difficulties, the present rifts in the history of the Middle East.
You Kurds, you Iraqis, have an essential role to play in the History that is being written today before you, before us. We need you. We need a solid Kurdistan in a free and democratic Iraq that will assume all its status, all its responsibilities — which will no longer need anyone. But it will always need you. You are Iraq’s model and way forward.”
The Foreign Minister then recalled the improvement in the Iraqi situation before assuring Kurdistan of France’s support and presence in Irbil and also envisaging reciprocal exchanges between the two countries, particularly by the presence of French people already on the spot: “We need more Frenchmen here, we need a greater deployment of energy (…) it is necessary to weave a whole tissue of economic relations, of investments and, obviously, of cultural relations”.
In Bernard Kouchner’s view, the Kurds and their long democratic struggle are model, not only for the Iraqis but for the whole Middle East “because I believe, for personal reasons that I do not think mistaken, the History of the Kurds prefigures the history of Iraq, its struggle to be free, to escape the dictatorship and to build a model for the Middle East”.
The French Minister added that the Kurdish government should be a model of political stability for the whole of Iraq, particularly regarding Human and Women’s Rights.
Speaking next, the Kurdish Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, welcomed Bernard Kouchner as a faithful friend of the Kurds, recalling the time when he worked for Médecins sans Frontières and when, “in 1974, when we had no other friends than the mountains, he visited the Kurdistan region for the first time and met General Barzani”; and than in the 80s, with Médecins du Monde, at a time when “our people was living its darkest days”, to provide medical aid and, later, in 1991, when he contributed to getting UNO to pass Resolution 688.
The Prime Minister said he was glad that Franco-Kurdish friendship should make a step forward with this opening of diplomatic representation and recalled the political route taken: “since 1991, we have been dependent on gifts of food, clothing, shelter from our friends and international humanitarian organisations. This noble decision has sustained us through the dark days. However, now the situation has changed. We, in the Region, have taken advantage of the situation that has been offered to us and tuned our backs on this bitter past. At that time, humanitarian aid was very important and precious to us but, with the liberation of Iraq, the people of the Kurdistan Region has taken up the challenge and we have played an active role in the reconstruction of Iraq.
Today we are going through a new phase, but we still need the support of the international community in the process of reconstruction inside Kurdistan and for the rest of Iraq”.
Dealing more specifically with relations between the Kurdish Region and France, Nechirvan Barzani considered that both countries benefitted from this new stage in their relations, both on the economic and political levels. “France has a strong position as a member of the UN Security Council and inside the European Union. Your country can play an important role in helping us to develop our political process, our democratic system, and by encouraging French industries and investors to take part in the efforts for Iraqi reconstruction. We also hope for closer cultural and educational exchanges with France. Our students deserve, like the rest of the world, the opportunity to continue their studies at an advanced level. We hope that French Universities would be able to offer students from the Kurdistan Region to be present every year and take part in scientific and technological advances.
You are supporting a people that wants to live in peace with itself and with its neighbours, a people that observes Human Rights and Law and that is advancing along the road of tolerance and peaceful co-existence.
These changes encourage us to work harder. We want to make up for the years of isolation from which we have suffered in the past. The Kurdistan Region is very rich and can offer many opportunities r=to the international community, especially in the areas of natural resources, agriculture, tourism, building and infrastructures.
All our efforts and our actions are being carried out in accordance with the rights that the Iraqi Constitution has given us. Whereas oil and gas have, in the past, been a source of suffering for us, today we are using the law to try and transform them into sources of prosperity and opportunity.
We are absolutely determined to tackle this problem on condition that we can guarantee the future rights of our people. The stands we are taking are just for the well-being and happiness of the Region of Kurdistan and the whole of Iraq.
We do not want oil and gas to be the sole sources of revenue for our Region’s economy. We want to take advantage of all the natural resources of the Kurdistan Region and to work to develop all sectors”.
In conclusion, the Prime Minister again thanked France for opening this diplomatic office ad for the political and humanitarian support that it had given Kurdistan in the past, considering that Franco-Kurdish relations had gone through a new stage.
At the end of this one-day lightning visit, Bernard Kouchner met the President of the Kurdistan Region, Massud Barzani, accompanied by Adnan Mufti, Speaker of the Parliament, Nechirvan Barzani and his assistant Omar Fatah, as well as the Secretary and members of the KDP Political Committee. In a Press Conference following this meeting, Massud Barzani welcomed the opening of this Embassy Office that he saw as a crucial advance in relations between France and Kurdistan. Regarding the content of the discussions that he had had with the French Minister, the president indicated that he had explained the Kurdish position regarding Article 140, which he described as “flexible”, particularly regarding the UN contribution to the question.
Bernard Kouchner, who had begun his Iraqi tour with a visit to Nassiriah, in the Shiite South, before meeting the principal Iraqi leaders in Baghdad, including President Talabani. Prime Minister al-Maliki as well as is opposite number, Hoshyar Zebari, returned to Paris on 1 June.
On 5 June, the report by Staffan de Mistura, UN representative in Iraq, on the issue of Kurdish territories still under Iraqi jurisdiction, was published. This follows the six-month postponement of the referendum provided for by Article 140, and concentrates on four provinces, selected from wide range. It undertook an analysis of the territories and the political and administrative proposals involved. These were Akre (Nineveh), Hamdaniye (Nineveh), Makhmur (Irbil/Irbil) and Mandali (Diyala).
In the case of Akre, administered by Duhok since 1991 and included in the KRG since then, the report considers Akre “typically considered as one of the districts mentioned as administered by the KRG in Article 53 of the provisional law and Article 143 of the Iraqi Constitution”. This is a district principally inhabited by Kurds and the official transfer of its administration to Dohuk province does not involve any real change form the present situation. UNAMI (UN Aid Mission to Iraq) recommends that measures be taken to guarantee freedom of movement between the provinces of Duhok and Nineveh and Arabic language rights.
Hamdaniye, in Nineveh province, was administered by the Nineveh governorate from 1932 and so was not included amongst those run by the KRG until 19 March 2003. The area enjoys close economic and administrative connections with Mosul and is historically made up of substantial towns inhabited by Christians interspersed between villages inhabited by Shabak and Arab communities, especially in the sub-district of Nimrud. As a result of the increase in violence in this region, particularly since 2007, which has been mainly aimed at religious minorities, a number of Shabaks and Christians from Mosul have sought refuge in this area. UNAMI recommends that this district remain part of Nineveh province, with a greater participation of local people in the Iraqi security forces, especially by Arabs and Christians, and the deploying of these forces in Hamdaniya in place of the Kurdish Peshmergas who at present defend it. The report states that the Christians and Shabaks prefer a form of local government and UNAMI insists on the cultural and religious rights of these minorities, as expressed in the Constitution. The recommendations also cover the measures that the Iraqi security forces should adopt to control the region, such as check points, local recruiting into these forces, increasing the number of police stations etc.
Makhmur (in the provinces of Nineveh and Irbil) has been continuously part of Irbil province since 1932. It was only administered by Nineveh after 1991, when the “green line” separating the autonomous Kurdish region from the rest of Iraq was set up. For this reason, Makhmur is considered outside the KRG although, as the report stresses, “no legislation, decree or regulation has officially transferred the districts administration from Irbil to Nineveh”. On the other hand, the report adds that “the sub-district of Qaraj is inhabited by Arab communities who have expressed strong opposition to being administered by Irbil”. The report proposes attaching Makhmur to Irbil except for Qaraj, which will be connected with a neighbouring district in another province. The recommendations work on the basis of equitable treatment in terms of budget, sharing resources, access to jobs and to government and security forces representation as between Arabs and Kurds, as well as freedom of movement and language.
Mandali (Diyala Province) is one of the oldest administrative sectors in Iraq. But was downgraded in 1987 by the old regime from the status of district to that of a sub-district and integrated into Baladruz area. Since 1932, it has always been part of the Diyala Province. In the 1970s, a policy of mass expulsion of Fayli Kurds (Shiites) and other communities was followed by a number of other decisions in the 80s, consequent to the Iran-Iraq war, aiming at displacing the border populations out of Mandali. This created another mass displacement and a drastic drop in the population. Chronic under-development, decades of military operations and repression, the systematic neglect by the administrators of all services and an acute water shortage have all prevented any large-scale return of the original inhabitants. The report proposes taking into account the tragic past of Mandali (particularly the Kurds and the Turcomen) and substantial investment in the development of this devastated area, with equitable budgetary treatment and sharing of resources, as well as access to employment and government representation and security forces, but leaving the area in the Diyala governorate.
UNAMI pointed out that it intends to continue its on-the-spot enquiries in other disputed areas such as Tell Afar, Sheikhan and Sinjar in Nineveh province and Khanqin in Diyala and finally, in a third report, the Kirkuk question will be tackled.
As one can see, the UN Office in Iraq has, almost every time (except in the case of Akre which is already in the Kurdish region) preferred to keep the administration of districts in their original province. The provincial boundaries, drawn up in 1932, are thus taken as major historic reference points, while the report totally dodges the issue of the referendum, provided for by the Constitution.
Kurdish reactions of dissatisfaction have been pretty general. The President of the Kurdistan Region, Massud Barzani, the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the Kurdistan Parliament, and the Council of Kurdish political parties first of all organised a meeting to analyse the content of these proposals. Then, in an official four-point statement, they expressed their concerns, in particular the “disappointment caused by the recommendations” that they regarded, in their present form, to be far from what they had hoped, considering that they could not form the basis for the future resolution of conflicts. The Kurdish government also stressed that the solutions proposed were contrary to those that had been previously accepted and that they took no account of the Iraqi Constitution or of Article 140. In consequence, the KRG has decided to draw up a memorandum that it will send to the United Nations expressed the hope that the UN Office in Iraq would negotiate with a commission formed within the Kurdish Region.
Reacting in more detail, Mohammed Ihsan, Kurdish Minister for extra-Regional Affairs, who is more specifically in charge of this question, judged the report “unfair”, criticising in particular the proposal to detach the Qaraj sub-district from Makhmur district and stressing that the Kurdish leaders had never been informed by Staffan de Mistura that such arrangement would be suggested. “The Mandali Council has several times repeated that it wished for the sub-district to be included in the Kurdistan Region. We expected from the UN technical help for applying Article 140, not for altering it”, explained Mushin Ali, a member of parliament during a special session of the Kurdish Parliament to examine the report. Other voices accused the UN Commission of not having sufficiently taken into account the demand by the majority of Hamdaniya’s Christians of for inclusion in the Kurdistan Region.
However, the Kurds are not the only dissatisfied ones. The Arabs of Kirkuk province, members or sympathisers of the “Arab Unity” bloc and the Turcomen of the Turcoman Front have also expressed their opposition to the report, particularly the part that recommends power sharing with the Kurds. They criticise UNAMI of basing itself on the 2005 Provincial elections, which were widely boycotted by the Sunni Arabs, giving a majority of the seat to the Kirkuk seats to the Kurds. Thus Hassan Well, a leader of the Turcoman party backed by Ankara, accuses UNO of having been influenced by the “Kurdish factions”, saying he was opposed to external actors interfering with the Kirkuk question — which is a bit odd in view of Turkey’s virulent activity on this issue. It may, however, be explained by the recent relative withdrawal of the AKP government on the issue following a certain “thawing” of relations between Ankara and Irbil. Mr. Well said: “the Turcomen are trying to unite Iraq and believe that it is in the interest of Iraq and the Iraqis to resolve their problems themselves rather than call on outside contributors, even if this contributor is UNO”. This party’s Web site even proposed, in a statement sent to the UN Commission on 15 June, that Irbil be declared a “disputed zone”.
In reply to this salvo of criticisms, UNAMI pointed out that, in the last resort, it would be up to the Iraqi government to decide. Andrew Gilmour, Political Director of UNAMI, declared that he was not surprised by the dissatisfaction of most of the parties in the conflict: “We did not expect that any of the parties would welcome the proposals. None of them has won 100% of what they wanted. Compromises are never pleasant for supporters of a tough line, whoever they may be”.
Despite the Kurdish Government’s severe criticisms of the UN Commission, its Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, during a visit to Dubai also envisaged a form of power sharing in Kirkuk: “We are urging for a solution to be found, not just for a referendum”.
Commenting on this increased flexibility, Wayne White, who ran the Iraqi section of the State Department’s intelligence service from 2003 to 2005, say this as “good news”. “The Kurdish leaders, Massud Barzani, the President of Kurdistan, and the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, have been subjected to enormous pressure from their rank and file to do their utmost in many areas, including the territories of Kirkuk and elsewhere”. According to Wayne White, although concessions on Kirkuk may erode the popularity of the two main Kurdish parties, they can also bring advantages, in relations with Turkey, in their negotiations with Baghdad on the question of oil resources and on the budget, as well as more relaxed relations with their Iraqi neighbours, the Sunni Arabs, the Turcomen and the Shiite Arabs.
On 10 June, a 17-year-old youth, Mohammad Hassanzadeh, was executed by hanging in Sanandaj (Sine), capital of the Province of Kurdistan in Iran, for the murder of a 10-year-old boy, at a time when he himself was only 15. Another prisoner who was sixty years of age and also found guilty of murder, was hanged at the same time as the youth.
In a communiqué, the European Union sharply condemned this execution, as did Amnesty International: “This is the latest execution of a delinquent minor. In carrying it out, the Iranian authorities have committed a new and flagrant violation of their international commitments with regard to the International Pact on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on Children’s Rights, which forbid passing death sentences on people under the age of eighteen at the time of the offences involved. This undermines the hopes aroused by the decision taken by the Iranian Judicial authority on 10 June 2008, to suspend for a month the death sentences passed on two delinquent youths, so as to allow more time for reaching an agreement with the victims’ relatives”.
Indeed, Behnoud Shojace and Mohammed Fedai were also found guilty of premeditated murder (though this was denied by the two youths). However, the use of torture, alleged by Mohammed Fedai in a letter, taints the whole procedure with the suspicion of serious irregularity. The lad states that he was b not even aware of the admissions that he signed after giving way under pressure of ill-treatment: “I am twenty-one years of age, I am young, and I was only sixteen when I was jailed. Like any youth I still had m child’s dreams”, he wrote, adding °“I was beaten and whipped several times (…) They hung me from the ceiling (…) They left me with no hope of survival”.
Amnesty says it is also concerned about the impending hanging of Said Ghazee, today 21 years of age, who is due to be executed on 25 June. Last December another young Kurd, Makwan Moloudzadeh, was hanged at the aged of 21. He had been imprisoned at the age of 17 for having had homosexual relations.
To date, Amnesty point out, there are 85 minors waiting to be executed in Iran: “We ask the leaders, the judicial officers and the new Iranian members of parliament to see to it that Iran joins world-wide tendency against recourse to death sentences, as was forcibly expressed on 18 December 2007 in the UN General Assembly Resolution calling for a moratorium on executions”, stated the organisation. Other Human Rights defence organisations record that there are 124 detainees waiting execution for offences committed when they were under 18. In general, Amnesty has recorded at least 335 hangings for the year 2007, which makes Iran the country where capital punishment is the most often carried out in the world.
Nevertheless, Iran has signed several international treaties, including the UN Convention on Children’s Rights, that prohibit capital punishment for minors. However, according to Iranian law, boys come of age at 14 and girls at 8 and a half, which, in the eyes of the judges excludes them from the protection reserved for minor.
In general, repression and sentences have been multiplying in the Kurdish regions. Two young feminist activists, Rounak Saffahzadeh and Hana Abdi, were arrested on 25 and 23 September 2007 respectively. They were both members of Azamehr, or the Kurdistan Women’s Association, that organises training workshops and sports activities in the town of Sanandaj and other parts of Iranian Kurdistan. They had also taken part in a campaign entitled “A Million Signatures for equality”.
Immediately after their arrest, Rounak Saffahzadeh and Hana Abdi were place in solitary isolation for 3 and 2 months respectively, in the detention centre of the Ministry of Information on Kurdistan, before being transferred to prison in Sanandaj.
On 19 June, Hana Abdi was sentenced to 3 years jail for “subversive activities” and “collaboration with the enemy” by the Second Chamber of the Sanandaj Revolutionary Court. The court also ordered that the whole period of her detention be passed far from here home, in Germi Prison, in the Azeri Province of Ardabil. Ronak Saffahzadeh is still awaiting trial. Mohammad Sharif, the two girls lawyer has confided to Human Rights Watch that he fears the charges against Ronak would be even heavier, including that of “enemy of God”, which carries the death sentence. “It is quite routine for the Iranian government to use vague charges about national security to imprison and intimidate peaceful activists”, explains Sarah Leah Whitson, Director of Human Rights Watch for the Middle East and North Africa. “But now they are going even further and passing quite iniquitous sentences”.
These two trials are part of a campaign of repression and intimidation against feminist activists, particularly those who initiated the “A million signatures for equality” petition against sex discrimination. In the last two years, 35 activists associated with this campaign have been arrested. This can also be linked with the upsurge of sentences against Kurds, regularly accused of activities “harmful to national security” or of membership of an armed gang (PEJAK), even when the offence is solely one of opinion. Thus, on 22 June, a Kurdish journalist, Mohammad Sadegh Kabovand, was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment, a sentence that was vigorously denounced by Reporters sans Frontières: “The Teheran has no scruple about sentencing journalists on fallacious pretexts after iniquitous trials. Even Mohammad Sadegh Kabovand’s state of health was not taken into account. This particularly severe sentence is a message to those who do not submit to those in power, particularly in the Kurdistan region”.
Mohammad Sadegh Kabovand was chief editor of the daily paper Payam-e Mardom-e Kordestan (The People of Kurdistan’s Message) that was closed down in 2005. However, the 11 years sentence passed by the Teheran Revolutionary Court is linked to his creation of an association for the defence of Human Rights in the Kurdish region. Arrested in July 2007, he has spent 5 months in solitary isolation in Teheran’s Evin Prison. Suffering from health problems, neither he nor his family can afford the enormous sum demanded as bail for his to be release of treatment (150 million tomans or 145,000 euros). His lawyers, Nemat Ahmadi and Mohammad Sifzadeh have protested against what they consider to be a “political” sentence.
The Kirkuk issue is also hampering the organisation of provincial elections, which are due to take place on 1 October 2008 throughout Iraq, except for the Kurdistan Region. These elections will revolve around a Bill redefining the respective jurisdictions of Baghdad and the provinces. However, they are so greatly exacerbating the rivalries and conflicts between Arabs, Kurds and Turcomen in this province that their outright cancellation is seriously being considered.
The Arabs and Turcomen are, indeed, demanding that Kirkuk be divided into four electoral districts, which the Kurdish Coalition rejects, seeing this as an attempt to partition the region and disintegrate its unity. Moreover, the Kurds are opposed to fresh elections taking place so long as Article 140 and the referendum its allows for have not been applied. The Arabs and Turcomen, on the contrary, insist on the necessity of fresh elections as they reject the results of the 2005 poll, which the Sunni Arabs had boycotted.
For his part, one of the advisers at US Embassy in Baghdad, Thomas Krajiski, visited Kirkuk and spoke to all the Arabs, Turcoman and Kurdish representatives in the governorate: “We support the holding of elections in Kirkuk and we do not wish for them to be postponed because the city of Kirkuk is important to all Iraqis and to neighbouring countries as well as the world. The USA and the UN are seeking to find a solution to the Kirkuk problem that will satisfy all parties”. However, the adviser refused to give more details of the kind of solution that, in his view, could be envisaged. Other US officials consider that the elections could be postponed for a month.
Mohammed Ihsan, Kurdistan Minister for extra-Regional Affairs, considered this visit and his remarks as “interference”. “The United States has no right to interfere on this question as it is a purely Iraqi issue. We are not saying that the elections should not take place, but we are asking that Article 140 be applied and we will not accept any interference in this problem, be it from Americans or Iraqis”.
From the Iraqi side, the Iraqi Parliament spokesman, Mahmud al-Mashhadani, in a statement expressed the hope that the Kirkuk problem would not compromise the holding of elections, before asking all the political blocks in the Assembly to finally agree whether to hold or postpone them. Jalal ad-Din al-Sagheer, the head f the Shiite Alliance, considers that it will be very difficult for them to take place in accordance with the original timetable, particularly because of Kirkuk, even if the electoral commission indicated that the Bill should be passed early July at the latest, so as to allow three months needed to prepare for the polls. Thus the Arab and Turcoman jurists have proposed to postpone the elections solely in Kirkuk, preparing a separate Bill and election for this province — an idea the Kurds reject, fearing to lose the gains of the 2005 elections, which the two other ethnic groups challenge.
With regard to the provinces of Nineveh and Diyala, which contain other disputed districts, the Kurdish parties have announced that they would take pat in the elections by forming a single list so as to win the maximum number of seats on the Mosul provincial councils. According to Khasro Goran, the assistant to the governor of Mosul and head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Nineveh Province, the Kurds would win a majority of the seats by uniting on a single list, the Nineveh Brotherhood. This list would include the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Islamic Union of Kurdistan, the Communist party of Kurdistan, the Iraqi Communist Party and some Christian political parties.
The controversial invitation of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad to the 14 July celebrations in France, has aroused several Human Rights defence organisations, including Human Rights Watch, which recalled the habit of the Syrian State of “arresting, trying and harassing intellectuals and political and human rights activists” by using methods of intimidation and coercion. “Any relations with Syria must comprise an open discussion of human rights problems, including the fate of political prisoners and other Syrian victims of power abuse”, declared Sarah Leah Whitson, Director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa section. “The Damascus authorities continue to harass anyone who dares to criticise them”.
Syrian bloggers, in particular, are embarrassing the authorities who, while they control the press, have more difficulty in gagging news and information on the Web. All the events of the 2004 Newroz events or the agitation that followed the assassination of Sheikh Mashouk in 2005 or, again, the incidents of the 2008 Newroz have been widely filmed, commented and made public via blogs and Internet sites in the diaspora, who relay information provided by eyewitnesses and participants.
Thus in March 2008, the Kurdish writer Pir Rostem, a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, who writes for several international Kurdish periodicals, was arrested, his house searched and his papers and portable computer confiscated. On 7 May last, it was the turn of the 60-year-old writer and political analyst Habib Saleh, to be arrested by the Syrian security services who took him to an unknown location where he is detained incommunicado, as is reported by the national Organisation for Human Rights in Syria (ONDHS): “The security services responsible for watching Habib Saleh arrested him on Wednesday night as he was strolling through Tartous market place and took him to an unknown location. Since then we have had no news of him”, declared ONDHS president Ammar Qorabi.
This is the third time Habib Saleh has been arrested. He has written several articles criticising Syria’s behaviour towards political opponents. He had already been arrested in 2001, with nine other activists in the “Damascus Spring” and freed after three years detention. In May 2005 her was again arrested and accused of “publishing lying information” on Internet. He was only released in September 2007.
On 11 May, Tareq Biasi, 23 years of age, was sentenced to 3 years imprisonment. Arrested in July 2007, he was accused of “insulting the security services” on line and of “weakening national feeling”. On 12 May began another trial —that of Muhammad Badi’ Dek al-Bab, a member of the National Organisation for Human Rights, arrested on 2 March 2008. He was trial before an Army Court because of an article entitled “Damascus, the capital of Arab culture”, which treats ironically the status of Damascus, which was declared “Capital of Arab Culture for 2008” at a time when the arrests of writers and intellectuals were multiplying. Accused of “propagation of false information liable to damage the State’s prestige”, he was sentenced to six months jail. In his case, too, this was not his first sentence, since, in the year 2000, Muhammad Dek al-Bab had been sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for membership of the Moslem Brothers and had only been released five years later because of a general presidential pardon on taking office. “This verdict shows that the Syrian authorities are continuing to violate the most elementary rights and public freedoms and to repress human rights activists” declared Mr. Ourabi, his lawyer: “It is a decision aimed at the ONDHS to punish its efforts of denouncing attacks on Human Rights”.
In addition to the freedom of written expression and right of assembly, the right of association is also flouted. Thus in December 2007, 13 political activists, including former member of parliament Riad Seif, were imprisoned for having taken part in a meeting of opposition groups. They were charged with “weakening national feeling and incitement to sectarian violence”, with “spreading false or exaggerated news that could harm the country’s morale” and with “membership of an organisation formed with the aim of changing the State’s structure”.
All forms of assembly and of election platform are thus discouraged or simply forbidden or cancelled at the last moment. On 25 May, Mazen Darwish, president of the Syrian Centre for media and freedom of expression was due to organise a conference on Press freedom at the Arab Cultural Centre in Damascus. Despite prior authorisation by the Minister of Culture, the conference was cancelled 15 minutes before its opening, by a simple phone call from the same minister.
Obstacles to people’s movement and placing them under house arrest are frequent. Thus Human Rights Watch points out that in May seven political or human rights activists were refused the right to leave the country. On 21 may, Muhammad al-Hasani, president of the Syrian Human Rights Organisation was prevented from visiting Beirut where he was expected to take part in a broadcast on the al-Alam TV channel on the situation of Syria detainees in Saudi Arabia. Similarly, Radif Mustafa, president of the Kurdish Committee for Human Rights was prevented from visiting Paris, although he had been invited to a training workshop organised by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network. On May 8, Raja al-Nasser and Muhammad Abdel Majid Manjourah, lawyers ad members of the Socialist Union Party were prevented from taking part in a workshop organised by the Arab National Congress. Zaradasht Muhammad and Abdel Rahman Ahmad, two Kurdish political activists were forbidden to leave Syria for Iraqi Kurdistan, where they were due to meet some political parties. Moreover, these restrictions do not only hit travel for political or professional reasons. Thus Abdel Satar al-Qattan was not allowed to leave Syria for a kidney transplant. A member of the Moslem Brotherhood, he had been imprisoned and then freed for health reasons on 12 June 2007 and now has to have dialysis three times a week.
The trial of three young Kurds of Turkey began in Diyarbekir on 9 June. Two of them are 15 years of age and the third is 17. They are accused of breach of Article 7/2 of the Anti-Terrorist Act, of “propaganda in favour of a terrorist organisation” and face up to five years imprisonment.
In October 2007, a choir of young singers, from the municipality of Yenisehir Diarbekir, had performed at an international music festival in San Francisco. The choir had performed 9 songs, including a Turkish patriotic march, Çanakkale Marsi and the Kurdish anthem “Ey Raqib” — the anthem of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, today officially adopted by the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. On their return, a Turkish Public Prosecutor, clearly pretty ignorant of the history of the Kurdish national movement, filed a complaint against the children, accusing them of having sung the “PKK anthem under the PKK flag”.
The three oldest singers will thus appear before the Diyarbekir Court charged with “propaganda in favour of a terrorist organisation” and the other, younger, members of the choir will appear before a children’s court.
Michael Santoro, the Director of the Festival, who had personally invited the Diyarbekir choir, denies any intention of political propaganda or “separatism” in these events, pointing out that his Festival had the aim of offering the possibility of public performances “to musicians, composers and artists who, historically have been under-represented because of cultural, political or economic reasons”. Despite the prosecutor’s charges, the incriminated song has nothing to do with the PKK. In fact it was composed in 1938 by the Kurdish poet Dildar and was adopted as the national anthem of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in 1946. Today it is the anthem adopted by the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. As for the flag, Michael Santoro points out that it is the Kurdish national flag but that no PKK symbols were on the concert platform.
Amnesty International has stated that singing a historic anthem cannot be considered a threat to public security and comes more under the heading of freedom of expression. The organisation stated that if these children were jailed or sentenced they would be considered prisoners of opinion.
This year, Irbil, capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, has joined the international list of towns that celebrate Musical Festival Day on 21 June, alongside Duhok, and Suleimaniah. In partnership with the French Foreign Ministry, he French Embassy in Iraq and its newly opened Irbil Office, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s ministry of Culture organised a series of musical events throughout the country with over 35 extremely diverse musical groups: Kurdish, Assyrio-Chaldean, Yezidi and even a French jazz group, Mystère Trio, that came with the support of a Convention with the City of Toulouse. The musical events took place in a great variety of place, going from a open-air concert in Irbil’s Minare Park for the French group to performances in such unusual places as prisons and hospitals, thus observing the initial spirit of this festival, which was to bring music out of the concern halls and official events. In all, 24 Concerts were given in the three provinces of the Region.
Kurds particularly enjoy music and open-air parties, so this initiative was a great success. Suleimaniah’s Azad (Freedom) Park, a former Saddam Army base, saw performances by both traditional and modern Kurdish singers to the great satisfaction of the inhabitants, as expressed by some of them to the Los Angeles Times: “My body and my soul moved in time to the music”, said 29-year-old Shireen Wihab enthusiastically. “I have never felt like this before”.
Heresh Abed Rahman, a zorna player, at the head of his Sahnad group, which is very popular in Kurdistan was also very positive about this experiment: “We are trying to revive our people’s taste for music, to get closer to them and this is a fine thing. It is the first time that we have played in the open air. Even though there was some wind, which affected the sound system, the sound of the wind in the trees gives just the particular tonality that mixes with our music”.
In the same city, a convalescent home welcomed a string quartette in its garden. A member of the audience, Rasheed Murad, 69 years of age, explained: “Life has been hard, I have never had the chance of being able to listen to music. I worked hard to bring up my family but a t present I am living in a different world here, with those who have no family. I would like such an event to be repeated, so as to give us hope to face life’s difficulties”.
Ali Hassan al-Majid, nick-named “Chemical Ali” because of his major role in the Anfal campaign against the population of Kurdistan, is at present being tried in Baghdad for his involvement in the assassination of tens of thousands of Shiites in 1991, when the Saddam regime crushed the uprising in the South, following the First Gulf War.
This cousin of Saddam Hussein, one of the leading political actors of the old regime, nevertheless denies the massacre of several thousands of civilians in the Shiite South, admitting only the execution of “a saboteur in Iran’s pay”. Witnesses, on the contrary, report that he and his soldiers deliberately opened fire on unarmed Shiite demonstrators in the city of Basra, specifically killing a teenager. This Ali al-Majid denies: “There were no peaceful demonstrations in Basra. The rioters started to build barricades and attack the soldiers … I never fired on civilians — my only duty was to eliminate the armed men”. This former Saddam minister, already sentenced to death last June for genocide, adds that he only sought to defend his country against “an Iranian invasion”.
The official attitude of the Baathist leaders towards the Shiite opponents (although they made up the majority of the country’s population) was, indeed, to consider them as agents of Iran or even as Iranians once they had stripped them of their Iraqi nationality. This was the fate of the Fayli Kurds, whose massacre and mass deportation will be the subject of a forthcoming trial by the Iraqi High Court.
These Kurds, who are of Shiite faith, live, apart from in Baghdad, spread out along the Iraq-Iran border, in the province of Diyala, from Khanaqin to Amarah as well as in Iran, in the provinces of Ilam and Kermanshah. They numbered over a million in Iraq before Saddam launched a vast campaign of “ethnic cleaning” against them in the 1970s and then again in the 80s — the second ending up in genocide. Tens of thousands of Fayli were arrested and then either deported to Iran or secretly executed. Many survive in refugee camps in the Iranian provinces of Ilam and Ahwaz.
Further to their Shiite faith, which made them suspect to the regime, especially during the Iraq-Iran war, their ethnic character also condemned them in Baghdad’s eyes, even from the first years of the dictatorship. This is explained by Muhammad Qaradaghi, an official of the Kurdistan regional Government: “In the 70s, the Kurdish political movement was very active in Baghdad and this was due to its large Fayli population. As from that time, the authorities planned their deportation so as to counter their influence — as well as securing financial benefits from confiscating their goods and assets”.
During the Anfal campaign, the survivors pointed out that, in addition to the deportations to Iran and executions they were subjected to chemical attacks using thallium, a neurotoxin. The Iraqi High Court is at the moment enquiring whether the trial should also include a charge of genocide.
Havi Shakur, a 28-year-old Kurdish refugee, who reached Britain from Germany, has created the first Kurdish cartoon film with the British cartoonist Stuart Palmer. This was screened in the town of Hull on 22 June, on the occasion of Refugee Week.
Created with digital pictures on a computer, this 55-minute film recounts the legend of Kawa the Blacksmith, mythical hero of the Kurdish people, and his victorious struggle against the tyrant Zohak, who symbolises the forces of Evil. “As this is the first film of this kind, the first long Kurdish cartoon film, it was very important that it be a Kurdish tale” explained its creator. “The story is that of Kawa the Blacksmith, which is probably the best known Kurdish legend. It recounts both the history of the Kurdish New Year (Newroz) ands the birth of a nation. However, it is not only a Kurdish film intended just for Kurdish people — I believe that it could also please many British people”.
The Splash Productions Company produced this in partnership with Goodwin Development Trust, which ensured its financing. Eleven Kurdish and eleven British actors gave their voices to the characters.
According to Havi Shakur, “the project met with considerable interest in Kurdistan — we have received a lot of encouragement and help from people there. In making it we carried out meticulous research to ensure that every detail is rendered in the most authentic manner possible”. In particular, the two creators took great care to reproducing Kurdish houses, clothes and landscapes so as to ensure the scenery be as accurate as possible.
Stuart palmer, who also works for Splash Productions, tells how the idea of this film came to them: “We both wanted to use our talents to create something unique and really worthwhile. Personally, I didn’t know much about Kurdish culture and this was an opportunity for me to explore something a bit different.
So we contacted Goodwin Development Trust for financing the making of the film. However, they were so enthusiastic at the idea that they decided to join us to develop the project”.
The film is made in two versions — one in Kurdish and one in English (with Kurdish sub-titles). Its creators hop to see it broadcast on Kurdish TV, as well as distributed in DVD for European countries, the United States, Canada and Kurdistan.