Ali al-Majid, nicknamed “Chemical Ali”, a cousin of Saddam Hussein and the main organiser and enforcer of the Anfal campaign, was executed by hanging on the 25th of this month. This was the fourth death sentence passed on Ali al-Majid, all of which were for crimes committed against Iraqi Kurds or Shiites. Thus he was sentenced to death in June 2007 for having ordered the gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja on 16 March 1988, and then in December 2008 for war crimes during the Shiite uprising that was drowned in blood in 1991. In March 2009, another court found him guilty of murdering dozens of Shiites in 1999 in Baghdad’s Sadr City quarter.
As one of the principal public figures of the Baathist regime, considered to be Saddam Hussein’s right hand man, he was a member of the Command Council of the Revolution, the highest organ of the Baghdad regime, and ordered several brutal and bloody repressions throughout the country. In March 1987 he was given full powers to crush the Kurdish rebellion in the North of the country. Arrested in August 2003, he was one of the 52 most wanted people sought by the Coalition forces, whose pictures had been printed on a set of playing cards. Ali al-Majid was the King of Spades on this set.
While the majority of the Kurdish and Shiite population received with some satisfaction the announcing of his execution, the Kurdistan Regional Government expressed its regret about the terms of the sentence itself, which does not include the crime of “genocide”. This has been demanded all along by the Kurds, for the actions committed in the course of the Anfal campaign. Majid Hamad Amin Jamil, Kurdistan’s Minister for Martyrs, stated: “After having consulted several lawyers, we think that the individual sentences are fair enough but we have reservations about the charge of “crimes against humanity” since we consider that the gassing of Halabja, which killed over 5,000 people, was an act of genocide aimed at the Kurdish people. We have decided to appeal against this sentence”.
The issue of recognising the genocidal nature of the Anfal campaign would also allow an increase in the compensation to its victims as well as bringing about greater international recognition of this dark page of Kurdish history. Thousands of people are still suffering from physical after-effects due to the chemical gasses, let alone the psychic consequences, as The Kurdish jurist, Bakir Hama Sidiq, who himself had lost 23 members of his family during the 16 March 1988 attack on Halabja, explained in his plea during an appeal: “It is important that the criminal charge of genocide be retained because there is no doubt that what happened at Halabja in 16 march 1988 was an act of genocide. This will help the victims to secure compensation. The government (of the day) claimed that Halabja was a military base, but in fact this action was a message to Iran, to show that the Iraqi leaders had no pity, even towards their own subjects. It was an act of genocide”.
The Attorney General, Goran Adham, stated that he and his team supported the sentence but that they were, nevertheless filing an appeal to secure a verdict of genocide, even thought the recognition of “crimes against humanity” at Halabja could, according to the lawyers, still give the victims the possibility of filing civil suites to secure compensation for their sufferings: “We are suing the foreign companies [that sold the chemical gases used as weapons] and the Central Government as well as the Kurdistan Regional Government before International Courts”.
The Kurdistan Regional Government’s spokesman, Kawa Mahmud, also expressed his government’s support of the appeal against this sentence: “We consider the verdict a just one but the failure to officially recognise this case as being one of genocide has aroused fears among our people. We are thus glad that the prosecution has filed this appeal”.
The determination to appeal against the verdict does not, however, mean a postponement of the sentence. Goran Adham even said he was convinced that the execution would be carried out even before the court of appeal had made its ruling as the latter process would take several months; as indeed was the case.
Other sentences had disappointed the Prosecution. Both the former Defence Minister, Sultan Hashim al-Tai and the former Secret Service chief, Aziz al-Duri were sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment each, which the Public Prosecutors considered insufficient. Thus, Goran Adham also has appealed for stiffer sentences in their cases.
Hashim al-Tai was sentenced to death with Ali al-Majid in 2007 for crimes committed during the Anfal campaign. However, at that time, the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and his Sunni Arab Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, had refused to sign the sentence, to eventually sign it in February 2008.
However, some political observers consider that the determination to press on rapidly to carry out this execution is not without some electoral ends, with the approach General Elections in March 2010, especially as the debate about the banning of some candidates close to the old regime has revived anti-Baathist feelings, particularly in Shiite circles.
“The death sentence passed on Ali al-Majid in the Halabja case, could be used by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in his election campaign”, wrote the analyst Haj Jelow Mari in the Iraqi daily Al-Mada. “Maliki will thus be able to tell the street that it was he who that he was the one who had secured the execution of Saddam Hussein and that he would continue to take strict measures against Saddam’s former assistants”.
The execution finally took place a week after the sentence was passed. This time, unlike the execution of Saddam Hussein, no videos were shown of the hanging and only two still pictures were shown on Television, both showing the condemned man before his execution.
At Halabja there feelings were mixed between satisfaction and indifference to this execution, together with disappointment that the charge of genocide had not been accepted. The day of the execution a commemoration took place at the town cemetery, where thousands of victims of the 16 March were buried, including some unidentified ones in mass graves.
“I am not happy about this execution since it will not change anything for us”, explained Yahya Nawzar, a Halabja schoolmaster. “He could even have been executed without the Halabja verdict. What counted for us was the recognition of the genocide”.
During the ceremony, in fact, banners were waved demanding this recognition. The town’s mayor, Khidr Karim Muhammad stated that he was optimistic about this question, thinking that the Supreme Court would end up by deciding in their favour.
Smugglers landed 123 refugees who said they were Kurds from Syria on the Corsican coast. Immediately transported by the French authorities to several administrative detention centres without being allowed to apply for asylum within the legal time limits, the refugees were finally released by the courts as the result of a heated controversy between the Minister of Immigration, Eric Besson, and the associations for the defence of refugees and the right of asylum, like the CIMADE or the Forum des Refugiés.
In fact, the procedure for asylum seekers provides for the applicants to be placed in reception centres while applying for asylum — not in detention centres… The Minister of Immigration had then tried to argue that: “it was impossible, in a few hours, to take, to the Southern end of Corsica, dozens of interpreters, lawyers, doctors of to find premises locally for detaining them that met all the legal standards”. However, the Freedom and Detention Judges of Marseille, Nimes and Rennes decided to free all the refugees, considering that they had not been informed of their rights and that they were not in detention — which implied that their detention had no legal context
Eric Besson was thus obliged to retreat by cancelling the decree ordering their expulsion and by accepting that the refugees be housed “in places of reception managed by the State in partnership with the Red Cross”.
Quite apart from this purely French politico-legal controversy, the fate of these 123 Kurds has briefly put the fate of the Kurds in Syria, especially with regard to the “undocumented” Kurds — that is, those arbitrarily stripped of their Syrian nationality in the early 60s, who now number over 300,000.
Persecution of Kurds, whether stateless or not, is undiminished in Syria and the pressure on political movements and against Human Rights activists there is accentuating, though without being able to stifle their demands. Paradoxically enough, this can even lead them to formulating new political objectives, hitherto taboo in the allowable Syrian political area, possibly inspired by the Kurdish experiment in Iraq. Thus four members of the (banned) Yekiti party were arrested this month — not, in itself, an unusual occurrence — for having expressed the wish for political autonomy of the Kurdish regions in Syria.
This demand was openly formulated in December 2009 during the 6th Congress of the Yeketi party. The four men had argued in favour of autonomy as a solution to the Kurdish question in Syria, an idea that was being discussed inside the party, hitherto inclined to concentrate on the issues of Human Rights and on the fate and liberties of the “undocumented” Kurds.
Following this, the four political leaders were arrested, although no direct link could be made between the position they took and their arrest. The four politicians arrested are: Hassan Ibrahim Saleh, born in 1947, Mohamed Mustafa, born in 1962, Maruf Mulla Ahmed, born 1952. All three are members of the Yakiti Political Committee and live in Qamishlo. The fourth, Anwar Nassi, a political activist, was born in 1962 at Amude.
All the Syrian Kurdish political parties and NGOs that defend human rights in Syria condemned their arrest.
Trials are also being held, for even more arbitrary reasons. Thus seven men, some of whom were members of a group of professional musicians, were arrested in October 2009 for having sung in Kurdish during a wedding party. The celebration was then broken up by the Syrian Security forces. The musicians and the brother of one of the best men were detained in a prison in Qamishlo. Some local NGOs have received testimony attesting to the torture being inflicted as a result of which one musician, Jamal Sadun had to be sent to hospital, where several physical lesions, particularly on the feet, were noted.
On 17 January, the Qamishlo Army Judge interrogated the detainees about the charges against them, namely “inciting sectarian conflict”. The prisoners Jamal Sedum, Mihad Hussein, Jawar Munir Abdullah, Jiwan Munir Abdullah, Hossam Ibrahim, Zahid Yussef, all musicians, and Abdel Latif Malako Yaco, the owner of the restaurant where the wedding party took place, all pleaded not guilty. Despite the lack of any evidence the Judge did not annul the trial but merely postponed it till 17 March to give the lawyers time to prepare the defence.
On the same day, the same judge sentenced other detainees of opinion to prison. They were Khalil Ibrahim Ahmed, Mohamed Shekho Issa, Abdelsalam Sheikhmus Issa and Rami Sheikhmus al-Hassan, in detention since mid-March 2009. They had taken part in a commemoration of 16 March 1988, the day when the Kurdish town of Halabja was wiped out by the Iraqi Army’s chemical bombs. They had already been sentenced to 6 months jail for having incited sectarian conflicts but their sentences had been reduced to 3 months each. They have all appealed.
Moreover, added to the political pressures, the Kurds in Qamishlo are suffering from serious economic difficulties aggravated by a drought for which the farmers, who make up the majority of the region’s population, receive no government assistance. Many of them have left their home village for the capital, Damascus, or another of the larger cities, being unable to earn a living from their land. Smuggling with Iraq in cigarettes, household products and appliances, petrol or even sheep is also rife. Many villages in this Northern part of Syria look like semi-desert ghost towns.
The impoverishment of a whole population has worrying repercussions, not only on its health but also on its access to treatment. The bulk of the families cannot afford to go to private clinics, which are extremely expensive, and so depend on public hospitals and dispensaries where treatment is poor.
The situation also affects education. The schoolteachers testify that a growing number of children are missing school, being pushed by their families to work. Moreover, schoolbooks and stationary are too expensive for needy families.
Yet the Jezirah has a rich agricultural soil, with abundant supply of watercourses. Traditionally they cultivate wheat, cotton, fruit and vegetables here — in fact 30% of Syria’s agricultural products come from this region. In the opinion of experts, the drought has been aggravated by an inadequate policy of irrigation. According to government sources, backed by UN estimates, over a million people are said to be hit by this drought, 800,000 of whose conditions of survival are very shaky. According to UNO, between 40,000 and 60,000 families may have left their homes for a hand to mouth existence in the large towns.
Lat August, Syria had sounded the alarm, backed by humanitarian organisations, describing the situation as a “humanitarian catastrophe”. UNO had initiated an appeal for aid in the form of food supplies to the tune of some $53 million, for both the population and their livestock. However, in view of the tensions between Syria and its neighbours as well as its bad reputation internationally, it is taking a long time for the funds to be released. This was confirmed last October by a UN official stationed in Damascus, in an interview given to the Financial Times. In addition to funds from UNO the countries making donations are, for the moment just Australia, Ireland, Saudi Arabia and Sweden. Further aid is expected from the United States and the European Union.
UNO’s World Food Programme also expects aid to the tune of 22 million dollars for next July to cover the regions of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Hassakeh, The WFP official for Syria, Mohammad Hadi, explained that “the majority of the population affected is facing extreme difficulty and has exhausted its resources for survival. The WFP has launched a new emergency operation to make up for the nutritional deficiencies of the most vulnerable part of the population, with special attention to the women and children under five years of age”.
However, local officials estimate that this aid is insufficient compared with the needs of the population living in the disaster stricken areas. “It is no exaggeration to say that people are dying of hunger here”, states a Jezirah official of the Baath Party speaking off the record. According to him, the local authorities have warned the central government of the seriousness of the situation several times, but without effect, even though in June 2009 the government had distributed additional rations of flour, sugar, oil and other foodstuffs for the hardest hit families: “the food distributions were insufficient because corruption is generalised and part of this food was stolen”.
However the drought is not the only reason for the impoverishment of the Jezirah. Many people criticise the absence of any programmes for the development of industry or tourism in the region, which is, nevertheless rich in natural resources like gas or sulphur as well as archological remains that could attract tourists.
Death sentences continue to be passed and Kurdish activists are amongst the groups hardest hit. In its latest report, Human Rights Watch highlights the breaches of Human Rights and freedom of expression directed at the Iranian Kurds, who are some 12 million strong — about 7% of the total Iranian population.
Thus Shirin Alan Hove, at the moment detained in Teheran’s Evin Prison, was sentenced to death by the revolutionary court as a “moharab” (enemy of God). She had been arrested a year and a half earlier in the town of Maku, in Western Azerbaijan province where she lived.
Two other Kurdish detainees, Mohammad Amin Abdollah and Ghader Mohammadzadeh, originally from Mir-Abad (Bokan) were sentenced to death by the Urmiah Court. Mohammad Amin Abdollah, who is 25 years old, was originally sentenced to 20 years imprisonment before being re-tried and sentenced to be executed on the 16th of this month as a “threat to national security” and “actions against God”. Ghader Mohammadzadeh, 32 years of age, was originally sentenced to 32 years jail but the same Urmiah court retried him and sentenced him to death. These second trials, aimed at increasing the sentence, are part of a practice that is becoming generalised. They recall the circumstances of Ehsan Fatahyan’s execution on 11 November last. As with Ehsan Fatahyan and all the political detainees, the two condemned men had been tortured and subjected to great pressure during their interrogations.
Amnesty International has, moreover, appealed to Iran not to execute another Kurd, Habibollah Latifi, who was transferred this month from where he had been detained in Sanandaj to solitary confinement —the last stage before hanging. Habibollah Latifi is charged with membership of PJAK, the armed wing of the Iranian branch of the PKK. Arrested in Sanandaj in October 2007, he was tried in camera without even his lawyer being present.
At the present time there are 18 Kurdish political prisoners awaiting execution in “death row”.
Furthermore ten Kurdish activists from Sanandaj, Kermanshah and Urmiah were arrested on 14 January as they were paying tribute to a student, Ebrahim Lotfollahi, who died while being tortured exactly two years earlier in the premises of the Sanandaj Secret Service. These activists had gathered at the Nehesht Mohammadi cemetery in front of Ebrahim Lotfollahi’s tomb for a minute's silence. It was then that they were brutally assaulted by the security forces and ten of them taken away. Their families have had no news of them since.
Metin Mirza, who had directed and acted in a Kurdish language play, Rese Seve, which created quite a stir in Turkey, has returned to the stage with another play, this time without any dialogue, apart from two words pronounced in Kurdish. Performed in Istanbul, with the Destar Company, the performance had a grant of 21,000 Turkish lire (about 10,000 euros) from the Ministry of Culture.
Rese Seve (nightmare) had been performed without any untoward incident and even with success in the Van theatre a few months ago. The dialogue was entirely in Kurdish, with surtitles in Turkish.
This second play, Cerb, which lasts for 70 minutes, shows four prisoners in a cell, forbidden to speak. In an interview given to the daily paper Hurriet, Metin Mirza, who wrote and directed the play, explained: “Because of our identity, we have become involved in politics though we did not want it. I wished only to speak about the theatre here with you, but I know that this is impossible, for you as well as for me. The day when I can succeed in only speaking about the theatre in Turkey I will know that things have become normal in this country”.
Asked about the government’s “Kurdish initiative”, Metin Mirza expressed his doubts: “Unless the State takes concrete measures, the initiative will be no use”. Both Metin Mirza and his co-authoress Bertin Zenderlioglu only learnt Kurdish at the age of 20 years. Metin admits to having great difficulty in performing in Kurdish on the stage: “A theatrical artist normally masters his own language. He or she is playing with words. But we have tried to learn Kurdish on the stage of a theatre. Thus some Kurdish intellectuals criticised our speech — but it is better that we should be able to do it”.
Even more than is the case with film, the Kurdish theatre has developed in the diaspora and does not have deep-rooted traditions. Metin indicates he had difficulty in finding subjects: “The theatre is a form of accumulation and expression of news. It must be nourished by its own culture’s past, but unfortunately this is impossible for us. That is why we make the most of the wealth of Anatolian cultures”. In addition to these problems, Kurdish society does not really support the theatre. “Unfortunately, our people’s theatrical culture is too weak. No one is interested in it, even if you give away free tickets. In fact, we have lost before we start”.
Cerb stages four prisoners in a cell forbidden to speak. If they contravene this prohibition they are in danger of all kinds of psychological and physical violence. “We want to show that people can communicate without words”. The advantage of this absence of dialogue is that the Istanbul public can follow the play, whatever might be their speech.
A conference took place in Paris, at the Senate over 28 and 29 January on the nuclear issue in the Middle East. Those taking part included several diplomats, research workers, and analysts of the Middle East as well as the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Javier Solana, formerly responsible for the European Union's Foreign policy. The speeches mainly covered Iran, Palestine and Iraq. Masrur Barzani, who runs the Security Services for the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, took the floor as spokesman for the Irbil government.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Welcome to you all.
It is an honour to address you today, in the birthplace of many of the democratic ideals towards which we now strive. As I stand before you, I am reminded of the great traditions of the French people. The commitment to "liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression” for all men laid out over 200 years ago in the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” These values, based in fraternity and equality, remain the foundation for all those seeking a more just world — a world where all men are represented fairly by their political institutions and no man suffers brutal injustices by those entrusted to protect, preserve, and promote the common good.
Inherent in the struggle to realise these goals and the Declaration itself, are the warnings of the Baron de Montesquieu that “constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go.” He wisely recognised and history has since proven, that no government can aspire to the most basic of democratic ideals and no people can realise the most fundamental of human rights without adhering to a separation of power – without the knowledge that the government “should be set up so that no man need be afraid of another.”
Few places so clearly symbolise the inherent danger of ignoring this edict than Iraq. Since Iraq’s independence, Kurds, Arabs, and other communities have suffered from the unwillingness of some of the Iraq’s leaders to accept these basic principles.
Religious and ethnic minorities have faced genocide at the hands of leaders intent on creating an idealised strong, central state out of the post-war fabrication that is Iraq. In their never-ending quest for uniformity, they have found not unity, but division and ruin.
The results have been devastating for all concerned – hundreds of thousands massacred - the vast promise of our people and oil wealth squandered. As one of the main components of Iraq, the Kurds have been the subject of a genocide war. They have been the victim of chemical attacks and a series of infamous Anfal operations during which more than 182,000 people, mainly women and children, perished, and 90 % of our villages were destroyed and levelled to the ground.
This is a well-known history, one that has resulted in a deep sense of mistrust and fear between individuals, communities, the people and the government – where the disadvantaged, weak or vulnerable expect the strong to pillage. Where a culture of revenge and retaliation have ruled.
It has been our hope that this tragic cycle would be broken by the adoption of federal democratic principles in the 2005 Iraqi Constitution, ratified by over 80% of the voting Iraqi electorate. That a new era would begin where our differences would no longer be misconstrued as our greatest weakness, but instead become our greatest strength — each component competing peacefully and contributing to the betterment of the whole. A future where power would be dispersed and limited, where, as Montesquieu advocated, no man need fear another.
However, the last few years have shown that many challenges remain. The security vacuum that has existed in many parts of the country has proven an invitation to international and local terrorists, who have played on our history of mistrust and won over segments of the population. Their repugnant attacks have rejuvenated the sense of insecurity between Iraq’s communities, especially Shia and Sunni, which undermine even a basic sense of fraternity between us. Weak leaders have turned abroad, allowing foreign entities with dubious intentions to play a role in directing our development. Ineptitude has bread invasive corruption that has permeated our bureaucracies, attracting profit-seekers rather than civil servants. Under these circumstances, loyalty to sect and ethnicity not surprisingly continues to come before country.
This is the reality of Iraq. Wishful thinking and lofty solutions cannot change this legacy. We must accept and understand it, if we ever want to move beyond it and change the course of history. None of Iraq’s people can thrive, while some languish in fear. No progress or development can be realised without confidence in the fundamental rules of the system.
Kurdistan region, however, despite all these challenges has managed largely to contribute to the unity of the country. It is today the safest and the most secure part of Iraq, which in turn has helped the economy of the region to flourish. This was mainly possible because of the dominant culture of tolerance and religious coexistence. The whole Kurdish experience and the national reconciliation practiced in Kurdistan could be a clear indication of how Iraq could move forward.
At its heart, this is our struggle — to establish the sort of division of power and rule of law that characterize modern democracies. These values are embodied in our Constitution, but it is only in their full and just implementation that we can find peace and progress. Without embracing these values, we will inevitably slide again toward despotism, regardless of who leads.
For the Constitution is greater than any one conflict, issue, or law – it extends beyond oil and gas, Parliamentary seat allocation, or budgets — it’s about what type of state, what type of people, what type of community Iraq will become. It is the source of our ability to feel confidant and safe, to know that the new Iraq will be a break from the repressive past. It binds us together as different communities, secure in our differences but united in common goals of progress and justice … I stand before you committed to the federal and democratic principles laid out in the Iraqi Constitution, not because I am a Kurd, but because, like all Iraqis, I am a victim of a despotic past.
In its recognition of the importance of strong local and regional governments, the Constitution thus reassures the long-suffering Iraqi people that the new Iraq will avoid the over-centralisation of power that has brought such devastation. For the betterment of all Iraqis, it lessens the ferocity of the competition over any particular office, by delegating authority and responsibility more widely. This delegation is essential for addressing corruption and creating the virtuous cycle of peaceful competition that reduces incompetence over time.
My message to you today is not pessimistic then. In many ways, we are at an advantage. We have the answers to our biggest problems, we have voted on them and agreed to their promise. We know what we must do. All that remains are the fortitude, wisdom, and courage to implement the democratic and federal system proven so effective to governing diverse societies and protecting individual rights.
This is the only way forward, the only hope Iraq and its people have to creating the sort of unity and progress found elsewhere. We as Kurds, and more broadly as Iraqis, and you as Frenchman, Europeans and more broadly the international community cannot waiver in our commitment to these shared values. To overcome its most important hurdle of disunity, Iraq must be able to protect its people and give them confidence in its benevolence. It must reassure us that the powerful will no longer be oppressors. That regardless of origin – all Iraqis from Basra to Zakho, from Erbil to Baghdad, will have a say in their fate, will have the rights granted to them by our Constitution. This is the basis for our fraternity and the only hope for Iraq’s future.