The New Year is definitely not marking any pause in the repression in Iran, quite the contrary. At the beginning of February, the human rights organisation Hengaw counted at least 36 executions for January. In 2019, according to Hengaw, there were at least 52 executions in the Kurdish provinces of Ilam, Kermanshah, Lorestan, Western Azerbaijan and Khorasan. Terrible figures, yet 26% lower than in 2018, which says a lot about the situation in the country...
While the authorities have still not given any official account of the deaths in the repression or of the arrests during the November and January demonstrations, many of the Kurdish activists arrested are still in prison and convictions abound: up to decades in prison, sometimes with lashes, for “treason”, “propaganda against the Islamic Republic”, “undermining national security”, “insulting the Supreme Leader” or “assistance to a Kurdish opposition party”. Many convictions were handed out in trials held behind closed doors and on the sole basis of extorted “confessions”, or for simply being present at demonstrations. Injured people die in their cells for lack of sufficient care, families are forced to night burials. Some commit suicide in prison, such as Siamak Momeni, 18 years old. Children have been imprisoned. Families do not know the fate of their imprisoned relatives. A simple open letter can be enough to receive 26 years in prison, as in the case of Abdolrasoul Mortazavi, who signed in the summer of 2019 with thirteen other activists a letter calling for the resignation of the Supreme Guide. Arrested, eight were sentenced on 1st of February to heavy prison terms, totalling 90 years. Another letter with identical contents, signed by fourteen women, also led to prison sentences.
The Kurdish region is controlled by the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) and the Etelaat (intelligence service), who are massively arresting to prevent further demonstrations. In a report published on 7 July, HRANA identified 138 political prisoners and detailed their conditions of detention. The spokesman for the Parliamentary Committee for National Security, Hossein Naqavi Hosseini, gave an estimate of 7.000 people arrested during the November demonstrations (CHRI). Radio Farda estimated the number of detainees at 8.600 at least in 22 provinces, while human rights defenders confirmed at least 500 deaths. The list, which is regularly updated, is available on Wikipedia in Persian. But the U.S. State Department estimates that in November there were as many as 1.500 deaths...
The Kurdish November demonstrators continue to pay a heavy price. According to HRANA, on the 10th, three Kermanshah residents were sentenced to prison terms: Sohbatollah Omidi to five years (ten years according to the Kurdish Institute of Washington, WKI), Khalil Asadi Bouzhani to three and a half years (six years according to WKI), Mehdi Ebdali to one year, a fourth, Mohieldin Asghari, having been acquitted. Also in Kermanshah, Kurdish feminist Farzana Jalali was given one year in prison. In Marivan, where there is still no news of imprisoned doctor Omed Modarasi, environmental activist Goran Qurbani was sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment, and November demonstrator Pishtiwan Afsari received nine years for “propaganda against the Islamic Republic”. In Sanandadj, according to the Kurdistan Human Rights Association (KMMK), Kurdish activist Chia Mohammdai received five years in prison for “assisting a Kurdish opposition party”, and in Bokan, trade unionist Hadi Tanumendi was sentenced to three years. In Sanandadj, unionised teacher Iskander Lutfi was given two years, and in Mahabad, according to the KMMK, trade unionist Hadi Tenomand from Bokan was given three and a half years for “membership in an organisation spreading propaganda”. At the end of the month, Zainap Ismaeli, one of the “Mothers of Peace” in Dehgolan (Dewelan), whose son was killed by Daech in Rojava in 2014 after joining the YPG, was arrested and held incommunicado. In February alone, 19 Kurdish activists were convicted, while hundreds of others remain in prison (WKI).
There have also been death sentences, such as those imposed on November 26th in Tehran on November demonstrators Amir Hossein Moradi, Saeed Tamjidi and Mohammad Rajabi. They were handed down on the basis of confessions extracted under torture or blackmail. Tamjidi and Rajabi, who had taken refuge in an unspecified neighbouring country, were returned to Iran at the end of December at Tehran’s request .
It is in this appalling context that legislative elections were held on 21 February without any real stakes: nine thousand candidates, and almost all the “reformists”, had in fact been eliminated from the outset by the Council of Guardians of the Constitution, controlled by the Supreme Guide, which ensured the victory of the conservatives – to the extent that President Rouhani declared on 15 January on television: “This is not an election. It’s like having a shop with 2.000 copies of a single article”. Several reformist groups had decided not to field candidates, and according to a poll by the public channel News Network on the Telegram application, more than 78 per cent of viewers polled said they would not vote. (Radio Farda) Before the vote, the Etelaat tried to silence journalists, summoning them to threaten them or raiding their homes to confiscate their computer equipment. Any message too critical could lead to legal charges.
The authorities wanted a high level of participation, which would have allowed them to declare abroad that Iranians support the institutions. One journalist even speculated that if the government had chosen the Wednesday before the vote to start talking about the coronavirus outbreak, it might be to give a very good reason for the low turnout (Radio Farda). In Iranian Kurdistan, a journalist from Rudaw found that the polling stations were almost empty – but it was forbidden to photograph them. The hours were extended up to five hours overtime because of a so-called “rush of voters” to the polling stations, according to state television (Reuters). At the end of the day, officials gave contradictory statements about the turnout. On the basis of figures compiled at 6 p.m., the Fars agency estimated it at 39-40% nationally and 30% for Tehran. In the 2016 legislative elections it had been 62%. Participation seems to have been lower in the cities, and later the national rate was officially set at 42.57%, but only 25% for the capital. This is the lowest participation since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. That same evening, the Supreme Leader conveniently attributed it to propaganda from abroad about the coronavirus epidemic. Moreover, the lack of transparency makes the official figures unverifiable: according to the social networks, the real participation has been 20%...
The lowest turnout was in Kurdistan of Iran; the Kurdish opposition parties in exile had all called the Kurds to boycott the election.
At the same time, Kurdish porters, or kolbars, continued to pay a heavy price to the repression. At the beginning of February, there were already three dead and twenty wounded for 2020. While one of them, from Saqqez, died of cold near Baneh at the beginning of the month when his group lost its way in a snowstorm, others were injured or shot dead by Iranian border guards, sometimes by the Turkish military. On the 5th, also in Baneh, a porter was injured in a fall while fleeing the security forces, and another from Oshnavieh (Shino) risked execution for “rebellion” while carrying alcohol (WKI). On the 16th, the Iraqi Kurdish channel Rûdaw reported that in Nowsud at least one kolbar had been killed (four according to other testimonies) and six others wounded. On the same day, two others were wounded near Piranshahr and Marivan. On the 22nd and 25th in Hawraman, one and then two more kolbars were seriously injured in falls (WKI).
Persecution against religious minorities also continues. On the 14th, HRANA published a report on the fate of a Tehran student whose only wrong had been to convert to Christianity, Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi. Banned from studying and imprisoned in the sinister Evin Prison after her initial release, she was re-incarcerated after being assaulted and injured in the face on a bus by another woman who accused her of not wearing her veil properly. When she went to the police station to file a complaint against her, she was herself arrested instead. Released on bail, re-arrested during the January demonstrations, severely beaten and abused in prison, she is now awaiting trial on charges of “disturbing public order by participating in an illegal demonstration”. The prosecutor prevented her release on parole by denying her bail. This is just one example of religious discrimination in the country. Since the end of January, a new regulation on the issuance of identity cards obliges applicants to declare themselves members of one of the constitutionally recognized religions: Muslim, Christian, Jewish or Zoroastrian. Those who do not tick the box corresponding to one of these religions (even if they lie about their religion) will not be able to obtain the card. This discriminatory measure affects not only the Bah’ais, but also the Mandeans and Yarsans (a minority of southern Kurds also known as “Ahl-e Haqq”). The identity card application form had an “Other” box on it until January 2019, when Javad Abtahi, a conservative deputy from Khomeinishahr (Esfahan), obtained its withdrawal from the Ministry of Interior. He argued this option “legitimized” religious beliefs not recognized by the constitution, “like the Baha’is”. This new discrimination explicitly targeting Baha’is comes on top of many others, such as the ban on education or the confiscation of their land, and is a flagrant violation of both the Iranian constitution, Article 19 of which provides for equality among citizens regardless of their faith or ethnicity, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Finally, the two researchers Fariba Adelkhah and Roland Marchal, arrested last June, are still imprisoned in Iran, and on the 18th, the eight environmental activists imprisoned since January 2018, had their long prison sentences confirmed on appeal, pronounced on the basis of completely fabricated evidence. A ninth member of the group, Iranian-Canadian sociologist Kavous Seyed-Emami, died in Evin prison three weeks after his arrest in highly suspicious circumstances. The BBC has published excerpts from letters addressed to the then head of the judiciary, Sadegh Larijani, by one of the group’s members, Niloufar Bayani, a former consultant to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). She testifies to the terrible conditions of interrogation and detention, including sexual harassment to which she was subjected. On the 21st, the CHRI published equally frightening letters from Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, sentenced in July 2019 in a closed trial to ten years in prison for “espionage” and imprisoned since September 2018 in the wing of Evin prison run by the Pasdaran (https://iranhumanrights.org/2020/01/moore-gilbert-letters-full-revolutionary-guards-australia/).
This February 2020 saw the publication of several reports on Turkey for 2019. On the 14th, the independent Turkish website Bianet published its report on violence against women, which includes 318 killed during 2019 and 1.699 in the last six years (http://bianet.org/english/male-violence/219948-male-violence-infographic-2019). See also the latest monthly report at: http://bianet.org/english/male-violence/219679-men-kill-21-women-in-january. On the 17th, the CHP MP Sezgin Tanrıkulu published for January his monthly report on human rights violations (http://bianet.org/english/politics/220140-monthly-report-on-rights-violations-by-chp-mp-sezgin-tanrikulu). Besides, the Turkish Human Rights Foundation (TİHV) counted 149 bans on demonstrations in 21 cities and one district in 2019, in violation of Article 34 of the Turkish Constitution which allows “unarmed and peaceful meetings and demonstration marches without prior authorization”. Particularly in Van province, the governor has banned all demonstrations continuously since 21 November 2016 with repeated 15-day bans.
Already in January, the Association of Contemporary Journalists (ÇGD) noted in its last quarterly report the worsening of obstacles to press freedom (http://bianet.org/english/media/218161-we-are-left-unemployed-subjected-to-violence-imprisoned, full report in PDF (in Turkish): https://bianet.org/system/uploads/1/files/attachments/000/002/866/original/%C3%87GD_Rapor.pdf).
On the economic front, on the 3rd, the state statistics institute TürkStat reported annual inflation at 12.15%, before indicating on the 10th that the number of unemployed had reached 4,308 million. The Turkish economy has been facing increasing problems since the transition to a presidential system and recent polls suggest that even AKP voters are unhappy.
In Istanbul, residents continued to express their opposition to the ambitious Black Sea-Marmara Canal project in a march organized on the 3rd along the planned route. On the 12th, the Constitutional Court rejected the CHP’s request for suspension of the project, declaring it constitutional and referring the applicant to the administrative courts. The following day, a court ordered the censorship of three articles reporting the purchase of land along the future canal by the son-in-law of the Turkish President and current Minister of Economy Berat Albayrak, including the one on Bianet in English.
Another 2019 event has been the dismissal of 39 HDP mayors, almost all of whom charged with “membership of a terrorist organisation” and some of whom could face decades in prison. On 7 March, the human rights organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW), counting 23 mayors arrested and 32 administrators appointed in HDP municipalities, considered that by this means, the AKP-MHP government had succeeded in effectively cancelling the results of the 31 March municipal elections, thereby violating the rights of voters (https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/02/07/turkey-kurdish-mayors-removal-violates-voters-rights).
The hunt for the HDP continued during the first weeks of the month, with the government clearly seeking to prevent, or at least make more difficult, the party’s convention scheduled for the 23rd. On the 7th, at least 6 HDP members were imprisoned, including HDP officials from Istanbul. On the 14th, the HDP announced that at least 99 of its members had been imprisoned in Ankara, Istanbul, Adana, Ağrı, Dersim (10 young members, mostly students), Diyarbakır (including its provincial leader İrfan Söner), Kocaeli, Mardin, Mersin, Şanlıurfa and Van (including reporter Yunus Duman of the Mezopotamya agency). Also imprisoned was Kurdish writer and politician Mahmut Alinak, who had been arrested eight times before. In all, probably several hundred people have been imprisoned. On the 17th, the day when Ahmet Türk, former co-Mayor of Mardin and Necla Yıldırım, former co-Mayor of Mazıdağı, were acquitted of the charges that led to their dismissal, a new investigation was launched against the HDP deputy of Van Murat Sarısaç, who had already been followed for several days by plainclothes people. On the 21st, the HDP co-president for Şişli, Mutlu Öztürk and eight members of the party, arrested on the 13th in Istanbul for participating in the commemoration of the seventh anniversary of the founding of the HDP, a perfectly legal event, were acquitted of the charge of “organizing, leading and attending illegal meetings and demonstrations” and released. They had initially been arrested for “insulting the Republic of Turkey” after chanting “No to war, peace now”.
On the 23rd, the HDP was able to hold its fourth congress in Ankara, during which Mithat Sancar was elected as the party’s new co-president before Sezai Temelli, and outgoing co-president Pervin Buldan was re-elected. The simple fact of holding this congress, which, in addition to its 1.018 delegates, brought together more than 20.000 members in the Turkish capital, constitutes a real victory in the context of such violent repression. As Buldan said after his re-election: “They took thousands of our friends hostages, but we have become millions!”. Moreover, the event had an international impact, with 28 countries, including France and several European countries, and some 30 political parties and women’s organisations from the Middle East sending delegations. Among the speakers invited by the Congress was the President of the United Left Group of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Tiny Kox. Referring to the repression by the power, Buldan also said: “But there is something they cannot see: they face an alliance of the oppressed. Cizre is allied with Gezi. Istanbul and Diyarbakır are allied with İzmir and Hakkari”.
As soon as the congress ended, an investigation was launched against the HDP for “propaganda for a terrorist organisation”, following the publication of a photo showing the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan at a photo presentation. Around 15 people who took part in the preparation of the presentation have been imprisoned. On the same day, the 10-year prison sentence of former HDP vice-president Aysel Tuğluk, who has been detained since December 2016, was confirmed in appeal.
In other news, the situation in the prisons is as bad as ever. Referring to the data disseminated by the Human Rights Association (İHD), HDP MP Züleyha Gülüm said that, for a prison capacity of 220.000, Turkey currently counts 280.000 prisoners, with 1.334 sick, 457 of whom are seriously ill. 44 sick prisoners died in prison during the period 2017-2019. Of these 1.334 sick prisoners, the only one that the Turkish president chose to pardon on health grounds at the beginning of February was Ahmet Turan Kılıç, one of the life-sentenced prisoners of the Sivas massacre, which had cost the lives of 33 artists and writers who had come to take part in the Pir Sultan Abdal festival, and died in the arson of their hotel.
Already on 15 January, Kurdish political prisoner Nurcan Bakir had committed suicide. Detained for 28 years and transferred to Mardin as punishment for her participation in the hunger strike of 2019, sick and never released despite her health situation and several demands, she had preferred to end it all. It is known that many sick prisoners are refused treatment, and on 29 January, a prisoner from Tekirdağ, Hüseyin Polat, died in his cell of an intestinal haemorrhage after being sent back to prison after only an injection, due to “no available place in the hospital”. At the beginning of February, of the seven imprisoned musicians of Grup Yorum, two had been on hunger strike until death for seven months, singer Helin Bölek (released on November 20 but still fasting at home) and bassist İbrahim Gökçek. Accused of terrorism without any evidence, Gökçek weighed only 40-45 kg at the end of January, according to CHP deputy Turan Aydoğan who visited him... On 5 February, the Progressive Lawyers’ Association (ÇHD) announced that eight of its eighteen detained members, including lawyers from Grup Yorum, had in turn gone on hunger strike. On 13 February, the HDP’s International Relations Committee requested in an open letter to the international community that it take immediate action to save the Grup Yorum detainees, who were in mortal danger. On the 14th, in the first hearing of the case, the Istanbul Criminal Court decided in a provisional judgment to keep Gökçek, who had been on hunger strike for 241 days, in detention while seeking the opinion of the Forensic Medical Institute, and postponed the trial to 26-27 March. But on the 24th, after 252 days of fasting, the Forensic Medical Institute decided on Gökçek’s release, ruling that his condition did not allow for further incarceration. The musician was placed under house arrest.
Arrests and convictions of journalists also continued. On the 13th, the Istanbul prosecutor requested 15 years in prison against former correspondent of the German newspaper Die Welt, Deniz Yücel, for “propaganda for a terrorist organisation”. Yücel had published an interview in 2015 with Cemil Bayik, one of the co-founders of the PKK. The next hearing is set for 2 April. On the 14th, in a rare piece of good news, the novelist Aslı Erdogan was acquitted of “membership in a terrorist organisation” in the case of the pro-Kurdish newspaper Ozgür Gündem, closed by decree in 2016, with which she had collaborated to support it, which earned her 130 days in detention. Released in December 2016 and only able to leave Turkey to go into exile in Germany after the return of her passport in September 2017, the novelist told AFP she ruled out returning because of the risk of further imprisonment by a “neo-fascist” political system.
Other recent denials of justice include the launch of a disciplinary investigation on the 12th after a baton attack on their campus by security guards and then nationalists against a dozen students wanting to attend a symposium where the president of Ankara University and the deputy minister of culture were speaking: the investigation was directed against the students, not their attackers. In Istanbul, a trade unionist from the construction site of the new airport, secretary of a DISK-affiliated union, is facing 15 years in prison for his participation in the (legal) HDP Youth Congress. He had actively participated in the fight against poor working conditions... On the 19th, the final hearing of the “Büyükkaya trial”, named after the island where eleven human rights defenders were arrested in 2017 during a training on digital security, was held. Among them were Taner Kılıç and Idil Eser, respectively former president and director of Amnesty International Turkey. Accused of being members of (at the same time!) the Gülen organisation, the PKK and the far-left DHKP/C party, they face up to 15 years in prison for, among other things, “membership of an armed terrorist organisation”. The court postponed the judgment until 3 April at the request of the defence.
The expression of Kurdish culture is still repressed. On the 8th, the two musicians Ilyas Arzu and Jiyan Savcı were imprisoned in Adana, their homes and the Dem Music Centre searched. The investigation was declared confidential. On the 21st, the HDP announced that none of the parliamentary questions it had submitted in local mother tongues, Arabic, Kurmanchi, Syriac and Zazaki, on the occasion of International Mother Language Day, had been processed.
Finally, on the morning of the 23rd, a 5,9 magnitude earthquake struck the Kurdish regions of Iran and Turkey, killing at least nine people, injuring 70 and destroying 250 houses in Van province. A second quake, of magnitude 5,8, occurred in the evening, without any casualties. The last earthquake, on 24 January, had killed 41 people.
On 2 February, the Presidency of the Kurdish National Council in Syria (Encûmena Niştimanî ya Kurdî li Sûriyê, ENKS), in the opposition to the Administration of North-East Syria (AANES), led by the PYD-dominated TEV-DEM coalition, decided after four years of closure to reopen its offices in the area the latter controls. This decision follows the “Kurdish unity” initiative launched after the Turkish invasion of October 2019 by Mazloum Abdi, Commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and the announcement by the AANES in early January that all restrictions on the political activities of the ENKS had been lifted. The closure had indeed been imposed by AANES. The ENKS explains its decision as a commitment to restore confidence between political opponents, prior to an attempt to resolve differences. The FDS, their spokesman Mustafa Bali told the Iraqi Kurdistan Channel Kurdistan-24, have been encouraged in their reconciliation initiative by external actors such as the leadership of neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan, including former President Massoud Barzani and his successor Nechirvan Barzani, but also recent French and American initiatives. Interviewed on another Iraqi Kurdish channel, Rûdaw, ENKS External Relations Officer Kamiran Haco, who is also the only Kurdish member of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, said that in these circumstances where “time is not on the side of the Kurds”, his organisation was ready to hold “serious discussions” with AANES: “What the Kurds should do now is to formulate a political project”, he said. Haco also suggested that greater unity among the Kurds of Rojava would enable them, with the support of the French and Americans, to better defend their rights in the ongoing constitutional negotiation process (Full interview in English: https://www.rudaw.net/english/interview/040220201).
Since last October’s invasion, Turkey and its jihadist mercenaries, despite the ceasefire that followed it and their takeover of a so-called “security zone”, have not stopped their attacks. Nothing seems to be able to make the Turkish President deviate from his anti-Kurdish policy, even the decision of the United States, revealed at the beginning of the month, to stop sharing with Turkey the intelligence obtained on the PKK by their drones... (Reuters) Despite an increasingly tense situation in Idlib, the Turks and their Syrian allies have continued to attack Kurdish villages on the edge of their zone of control, in particular near Tall Tamr on the Khabur, and to the west of Tall Abyad / Girê Sipî. In the conquered Syrian territories, Turkey is behaving as a colonising power plundering resources. This is what it had done to Afrin for olive oil, stolen from Kurdish farmers and resold in Turkey. Mehmet Güzelmansur, CHP deputy from Hatay, asked in a parliamentary question how much Afrin oil had been sold in this way on the Turkish market, but was refused an answer at the beginning of the month by the Minister of Agriculture, who argued that it was a “trade secret”. However, Güzelmansur said that according to the state institute TurkStat, 44.5 million dollars worth of olive oil had been sold. What worried him was not so much the theft of the oil from the Kurds as the consequences of putting it on the Turkish market, which brought down prices and caused huge losses to producers. The question of who benefited from this looting does not seem to have been addressed.
But looting is only one aspect of the exactions committed by the occupants. In Afrin, where about 1.000 people are still missing, women were particularly targeted during the two-year jihadist occupation, with abductions, killings and rapes. Encouraged by the silence and lack of reaction from the international community, the occupiers, who have remained unpunished, resumed their abuses in the territories conquered in October. Sources in Ras-al-Ain / Serê Kaniyê informed the ANHA agency of dozens of kidnappings and assaults in this town, but also in Tall Abyad / Girê Sipî. Among the women victims of the pro-Turkish mercenaries, one of the best known is certainly the Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf, co-founder of the Syrian Future Party, assassinated on 12 October 2019 by members of the Ahrar al-Charqiya group after her vehicle was intercepted on the M4 highway near Tall Tamr. Khalaf’s mother, Souad Mustafa, addressed the European Parliament on 6 February to call for the perpetrators and instigators of this war crime to be arrested and brought to international justice: “I want Erdoğan to be held responsible for this crime. Hevrin has dedicated his life to the unity and brotherhood of all the peoples of the region. Each person responsible should be tried for his or her murder”. Souad Mustafa, however, opposed US sanctions against Turkey, which would make the people suffer more than the real perpetrators, the government: “A war crime has been committed against humanity, and the very person who gave the orders to these activists must be held responsible before a just court”, she concluded.
Another act of war by pro-Turkish mercenaries targeting civilian populations, and thus potentially a war crime, was revealed at the end of February: entering the Alok pumping station in the (Turkish-controlled) city of Ras al-Ain / Serê Kaniyê on the 24th, they expelled the Syrian staff before stopping the pumps, thus cutting off water to an area inhabited by 460.000 people and camps housing hundreds of thousands of displaced people. The towns of Hassakeh and Tall Tamr in particular, and the Al-Hol camp, where families of Daech fighters are detained, have been deprived of running water. After the Turkish bombardments in October, the station was already operating at only 20% of its capacity... The situation is all the more difficult as hundreds of families driven out of the Idlib region by the fighting between the regime and the rebels arrived during the month in the area controlled by the AANES (Administration of North-East Syria), particularly in Manbij. The commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Mazloum Kobanê, had indeed indicated that this area was open to them.
In this tense context, a delegation of Kurdish parties representatives visited Hmeimim and Damascus, where they met government officials including the Syrian President, with the Russians acting as intermediaries. Both sides expressed their readiness to engage in political dialogue. Ilham Ahmed, co-chair of the Executive Council of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political voice of the FDS, confirmed to the newspaper Asharq al-Awsat that talks with the regime had resumed; it should be recalled that previous attempts had met with little success, mainly due to the rigidity of the regime. On the 19th, FDS spokesman Kino Gabriel denied that the FDS fought alongside the regime’s forces against Turkish forces in Idlib, while FDS commander Mazloum Abdi reiterated on Al-Arabiya that there could be “no simple return to the Syria of before 2011”, and that there was “no solution without the Kurds” (WKI).
In the middle of the month, Adbi also met with US special envoy James Jeffrey, arrived via Iraqi Kurdistan, to discuss the state of the fight against Daech. At the end of January, a delegation from the European Union’s representative office in Iraqi Kurdistan visited the AANES office in Suleimaniyeh for the same reason. Another point raised was the fate of the Daech prisoners held in 17 camps by AANES, which, together with the United States, is constantly calling on European countries to repatriate their nationals so that they can be tried in their countries of origin. If on the 6th, a Russian delegation received 35 orphans of parents members of Daech (AFP), the European countries, for their part, are still turning a deaf ear. After months of deadlock, the AANES announced in early February that it had finally resolved to try its prisoners on the spot and that it had asked for help from the member countries of the anti-Daech coalition. Abdulkarim Omar, co-chairman of the AANES Foreign Relations Committee, said: “There must be an international solution... This was the basis of our relationship with the international coalition against Daech [...] These members of [Daech] must be judged, and the international community must help us in this task by continuing this relationship”. Helsinki, where a meeting was held with AANES representatives, indicated support for the establishment of a special court in Rojava to try foreign ex-combatants or suspected foreign ex-combatants. In France, the group of about a hundred families, including relatives of the 300 children of French jihadists detained in the Rojava, once again requested their repatriation on the 14th (AFP). AANES reiterated on the 23rd its request for international legal assistance, while reaffirming its commitment to guarantee “a transparent and fair trial” for the jihadists who would be tried locally.
However, in his 10th report on the threat posed by Daech, published on 4 February, the UN Secretary General said the jihadist organisation had taken advantage of the Turkish invasion of north-eastern Syria to reorganise itself and continue its financial transactions... through Turkey (https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/s_2020_95.pdf). On the 5th, the Pentagon reported that the FDS had foiled several suicide vehicle attacks in preparation against the civilian populations of Qamishli, Hasakeh and Derik, as well as an imminent attack on 1st January on a joint military base with US troops in Deir Ezzor province. Two jihadists were captured in the latter action.
Finally, the Party for Democratic Unity (PYD), which dominates the AANES coalition, held its eighth congress on 24th and 25th February in Rmeilan with the slogan: “With the Democratic Union, we are defeating the occupation, developing an autonomous administration and building a democratic Syria”. Around 600 delegates attended, including some coming from neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan. At the end of the congress, Anwar Muslim, previously in charge of the Euphrates region, replaced Shahoz Hassan as co-president, while Aysha Hisso retained her position as co-president. “Our work since the founding of the party has been to build a free, democratic and decentralized Syria”, Muslim said.
Iraq decidedly seems unable to emerge from its political deadlock. After the resignation of Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi in December, the Shiite parties dominating the parliament entered into endless disputes to find a successor for him. At the same time, protests against corruption and the lack of services and employment continued despite increasingly bloody repression. After President Barham Saleh threatened to choose one himself, parliament finally succeeded on 1st February, in a last-minute compromise, in appointing Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi. Charged by the Iraqi President to form his cabinet within 30 days, he first said he would present it to parliament before the end of the week, before more cautiously announcing that he hoped to finalise it by the end of the month...
The protesters immediately expressed their rejection of Allawi as still belonging to the same Shiite political staff they no longer want to see in power. Moqtada Al-Sadr, whose Sayrûn alliance had supported Allawi in parliament, then ordered his supporters to turn against the protesters he had previously supported. From the 2nd, the “sadrists” violently attacked protesters throughout the country. On the 5th, eight were shot dead in Najaf and hundreds injured, so much so that even Allawi threatened to resign in the face of this “totally unacceptable” violence. In Kurdistan, the Presidency also called for an end to the violence, a request reiterated on the 12th (Al-Monitor). On the 7th, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani expressed in turn his condemnation.
To defuse the opposition, Allawi began by contacting the protesters, rather than the various political alliances. From then on, he found himself on the tightrope, between the protesters who continued their rejection, the Kurds and Sunnis who reproached him for not consulting them, Sadr who threatened him on the 11th to withdraw his support if he gave in too much, and finally, the parliament dominated by Shiite parties who would in the end have the power to approve or not his cabinet... On the 12th, in Baghdad, demonstrators and security forces were fighting for control of the streets and the bridges over the Tigris...
On the 13th, Sadr issued a “revolutionary charter” purporting to regulate the demonstrations, in which he condemned the “promiscuity” that prevailed there and called for gender segregation. Outraged, Iraqi women staged several marches to assert their role in the movement, Sadr responding with accusations of “promiscuity, drunkenness and immorality”.
On the 15th, Kurdistan’s Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, from the Munich Security Conference, reiterated Erbil’s conditional support for the new government in formation, while stressing the importance of Erbil-Baghdad military coordination in the fight against Daech...
Kurds and Sunnis, worried about being excluded from power, started to coordinate in some sort of anti-Allawi alliance as a means of exerting pressure. On the 16th, the (Sunni) Speaker of Parliament, Mohammed al-Halbousi, visited Erbil and Suleimaniyeh, before issuing a joint communiqué with KDP leader Massoud Barzani recalling that the new government should “represent all the components of Iraq, and on the basis of national partnership” – that is to say, beyond a participation of each community, taking in account the wishes of Kurdish and Sunni political parties… On the same day, demonstrators marched with portraits of their own candidate for Prime Minister, the pharmacist from Nassiriya ‘Alaa al-Rikaby.
At the same time, Allawi announced that he would soon propose his government for a vote of confidence, which seemed a challenge given the differences in parliament: since the targeted assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the Shiites have been demanding the departure of American troops, while the Kurds and Sunnis have made a condition for their support of the continued cooperation with the anti-Daech coalition led by the United States... (AFP) Another stumbling block, the committee charged with formulating constitutional amendments in response to the protesters’ demands seemed to have become bogged down, even though its four-month mandate was about to end... (AFP)
On the 17th, the continued violence that had left at least 200 wounded in Baghdad and Karbala, including 59 in Baghdad during the previous three days, prompted a new condemnation by UNAMI, followed the next day by US Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker.
On the 22nd, it was the Kurds of Suleimaniyeh who demonstrated for the first time against corruption and the lack of services and jobs at the call of Sashwar Abdulwahid’s “New Generation” opposition party.
On 23 February, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Allawi on the phone to remind him of the need to cooperate with Sunni and Kurdish leaders in the formation of his government. The next day, the leaders of several Kurdish parties, including those participating in the Regional government, met in Erbil to work out a common position. At the end of this meeting, they set three conditions for supporting Allawi: respect for the constitutional rights of the inhabitants of Kurdistan, respect for budgetary commitments, and normalisation of the security situation in the territories covered by Article 140 of the Constitution, that is to say the disputed territories. An agreement was reportedly reached with Allawi on Kurdish representation in the cabinet: it would comprise four Kurdish ministers, three of whom would be chosen by the Kurds themselves and one appointed by Allawi (Asharq Al-Awsat).
On 25 February, numerous demonstrators marched again in Baghdad to renew their opposition to foreign (i.e. Iranian) interference and the appointment of Allawi. Security forces again used excessive force against them, killing at least two people and injuring dozens more. On the same day, Allawi published his government programme, whose agenda included early elections and reforms. But this document, which did not mention the Kurdistan Region as a federal entity within Iraq, did not convince the Kurds, who decided to boycott the parliamentary session that was to approve it. Initially scheduled for the 24th, then postponed to the 27th, it was again postponed for lack of a quorum, the Sunnis having also boycotted it. The Kurds made their support conditional on guarantees on their budget and on treatment in accordance with the constitution of the Kurdistan Region, whose special status, according to them, implies that it can choose itself the ministers it sends to Baghdad. A new session scheduled for the 28th was cancelled, again because of the Sunni and Kurdish boycott. At the end of the month, uncertainty still prevailed over the future of Allawi, whose support was rapidly eroding...
At the same time and despite all these difficulties, discussions continued between Kurdistan and Baghdad. On the 5th, the two parties reached an agreement on the 2020 budget, Erbil set to contributing 250.000 barrels of oil per day. However, Kurdish officials said they would wait for the formation of the new government before initiating the transfers.
Throughout the month, the jihadist organization Daech continued its attacks in the disputed territories. In addition to the security vacuum created by the lack of cooperation between Iraqi forces and Kurdish pechmergas, which has persisted since October 2017, Daech has also recently benefited from the temporary interruption of joint Iraqi-American operations, which only resumed on 31 January. The Pentagon also said that the death of the organisation’s “Caliph”, Al-Baghdadi, had had virtually no impact on the organisation’s capabilities. The jihadist threat is therefore more pressing than ever. The Prime Minister of Kurdistan, Masrour Barzani, took the opportunity of the Munich Security Conference to draw attention to the persistence of this danger and the need for better international coordination to combat it... The first day of the month, jihadists kidnapped two brothers at a mock checkpoint set up between the districts of Kifri and Touz Khourmatou (south of Kirkouk), the second kidnapping in this sector in 48 hours. Two people, most likely these two hostages, were released a few days later for a ransom of 70.000 US$. Although the Pechmergas were able to capture an important leader in this area on the 3rd, the attacks continued, with the kidnapping and killing of two civilians on the 4th, west of Kirkuk. Further north, it was the Makhmur camp that was attacked on the 2nd... On the 9th at dawn, the Pechmergas and Asayish (Security) of Kurdistan launched with the air support of the Coalition a massive anti-Daech operation in Garmiyan, including precisely the Kifri area, near which they fought at length against the jihadists, killing an unspecified number of them. On the 12th in the night, Daech attacks on villages of the Kurdish religious minority west of Khanaqin left three dead (a father and his son, a pechmerga and an Iraqi officer), and ten wounded (Kurdistan-24). On the 17th, the Asayish of Garmiyan freed three prisoners held in a tunnel and arrested some of those responsible for their abduction, jihadists or bandits. On the 23rd, two farmers were injured by an IED in Diyala. On the 24th, three civilians were killed and a fourth injured in an attack in Salahaddin province.
On the same day, the Iraqi Minister of Defence and the Minister of Peshmerga of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) met in Baghdad to coordinate the lines of control of their respective forces and discuss cooperation. On the night of the 24th-25th, an Iraqi operation eliminated 39 jihadists between the provinces of Kirkuk and Salahaddin in clashes that lasted more than 10 hours. Two tunnels were discovered with large quantities of ammunition and weapons (Kurdistan-24). On the night of the 25th, jihadists on motorcycles carried out several attacks against Kurdish villagers in Kirkuk, killing four people and injuring three. Some residents then accused Arab tribes of cooperating with Daech to drive them off their land. On the 28th, two Iraqi security personnel were killed and a third injured in Kirkuk. The following day, two civilians were injured by another IED in South Mosul and at least one member of the Shia militia was killed near Daquq (South Kirkuk). Daech also appears to be still present in Hawija, where Iraqi security forces have had to launch several raids.
On 18 February, all 230 defendants in the “Gezi trial”, concerning the 2013 demonstrations in this Istanbul park, were acquitted. Among them was businessman, human rights defender and philanthropist Osman Kavala, the only one of them still in prison, despite a 10 December ruling by the European Court of Human Rights ordering his “immediate release”.
The prosecutor had requested against him and two other defendants, Mücella Yapıcı and Yiğit Aksakoğlu, life sentences. However, in a recent ruling on the continued detention of another defendant, Professor Mehmet Altan, the Turkish Constitutional Court recalled that it is not up to the local courts to challenge its authority, but rather to “put an end to the situation that led to the rights violations” on which it ruled... The Constitutional Court had referred in this ruling to the decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to release Altan, that was also ignored in the case of Osman Kavala. Kavala’s lawyer had therefore challenged the prosecutor’s opinion on the basis of this ruling, which should also apply to his client, as his situation was similar to that of Altan.
The acquittal seemed for a while to make this debate academic. However, it shows to what extent the leader of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtaş, himself imprisoned without trial for almost four years despite a release ruling from the ECHR, may be right when he states that “there is no longer a judicial system” in Turkey .
But the biggest scandal was yet to come. On the same evening that his acquittal was pronounced, Osman Kavala was targeted by a new warrant issued by the Istanbul Prosecutor General in the framework of an investigation into the attempted coup of 15 July 2016. This dramatic coup de theatre has provoked outraged reactions from all sides. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic, said: “It is difficult not to notice a similarity between this new arrest and what happened in the cases of Ahmet Altan, Selahattin Demirtaş and Taner Kılıç, whose trials I am also following very closely”.
Osman Kavala was arrested again on the 19th.
On the same day, the Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK) authorized an investigation against the three judges who had delivered the acquittal verdict. On the 21st, thirty Turkish bar associations, including those of Ankara, Adana, Bursa, Çanakkale, Diyarbakır, Gaziantep, Mardin and Şanlıurfa, describing this authorisation and investigation as attempts to intimidate judges, called in a joint statement for the collective resignation of the HSK, recalling that such pressure is totally unconstitutional. On the 24th, the Bar Associations of 25 provinces stated in a joint statement their opinion that “executive interference in the judiciary has reached an unacceptable level”.
On the 26th, a campaign of support by sending letters to Osman Kavala was launched. The aim is to write to him in his prison in Silivri at “Silivri Kapalı Ceza İnfaz Kurumu, 9 No’lu Cezaevi, A-7 / C 59, 34570 Silivri / İstanbul”. The organisers have specified that those who do not have the possibility or the means to send letters or cards to Osman Kavala by post can send their messages to the e-mail address email@example.com for forwarding to him.
The death of two coronavirus patients in Iran on the 19th caused concern among the population, but also further damaged the government’s image. Many took the announcement as an admission by the regime that the epidemic had already spread to Qom, the country’s religious capital and destination of numerous pilgrimages. In addition, two more cases were reported in Qom the following day, and another in nearby Arak on the 21st. The many Iranians who have lost confidence in the regime, particularly since its attempt to conceal its responsibility for the Ukrainian plane crash, have begun to suspect that the government might have similarly concealed the disease in order to obtain a higher turnout in the elections. The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, said on the 23rd that the reports in the foreign media about the spread of the coronavirus in Iran were intended precisely to dissuade people from voting...
On the 24th, Qom MP Ahmad Amirabadi-Farahani said that there had already been 50 deaths in his constituency and that the city had to be quarantined. He revealed that the outbreak had already started three weeks earlier and that there had been deaths as early as 13 February, but that the officials in charge had remained silent. According to him, 250 patients were quarantined in Qom and 32 of the deaths occurred in quarantine... On the 26th, the government’s figures, 19 deaths and 139 positive diagnoses, were widely considered among the population to be grossly underestimated. As the public began to ask for the closure of some holy places, some particularly superstitious religious people on the contrary encouraged the faithful to visit them to benefit from their protection against the virus! However, two women returning from Qom tested positive in Beirut. While the authorities continued to claim that there were no cases in Mashhad, 7 pilgrims returning from that city out of a group of 700 tested positive in Kuwait: inevitably, Iranians began to question the official statements...
In Iraq, the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Najaf, also on the 24th, also involved an Iranian student, who was transferred to hospital and quarantined.
On the 28th, while the Iranian Ministry of Health reported 34 deaths due to coronavirus, the BBC Persian channel claimed that according to information received from hospital sources, the true number was at least 210. Angry at the authorities’ concealment, Rasht MP Gholam Ali Jafazadeh Imanabadi was reported saying: “You can hide the figures, but you cannot hide the cemeteries”...
The epidemic began to spread in Iranian Kurdistan where, according to a semi-official map, more than a dozen people had died by the end of the month.
Human rights defenders have begun to worry about the consequences of the epidemic for the prisoners crammed into the terrible Iranian prisons where sanitary conditions are deplorable.
In neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan, the authorities began by banning passengers from China from entering the region on 1st of February. On 4 February, air links to China were suspended, with the Chinese consulate in Erbil expressing “disappointment” at the decision. On the 20th, although there had not yet been any cases of coronavirus in Iraq or Kurdistan, the KRG decided to close its borders with Iran – with the exception of citizens of the Region then in Iran, who were allowed to enter, but were placed in quarantine for two weeks. Later the same day, Baghdad announced the suspension of all flights between Iraq and Iran. On the 26th, several public events planned in Kurdistan were cancelled, while the Iraqi Ministry of Health announced that four members of the same family recently returned from Qom had tested positive. On the 28th, the celebrations for the next Newrouz were cancelled.
In Turkey, the Ministry of Health announced the suspension of air links with China from February 5th until the end of the month and the inspection with a thermal camera of passengers arriving from Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia. This measure was quickly extended to all origins. On the 24th, the land borders with Iran were closed, and on the 25th, the flights of the Turkish national airline THY with Iran and China were suspended, except for Tehran. On the 26th, all flights were suspended without any time limit. Turkey has also set up field hospitals at the borders with Iran. The health minister said there were no cases in Turkey yet, but that the epidemic “had reached the gates of the country”.
An outstanding, multi-faceted personality, Dr. Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou was both an academic and a political leader. After having played an important role in opposing the dictatorial regime of Reza Shah, he then opposed the Islamic Republic that succeeded him in 1979 when the latter confiscated the popular revolution with its democratic aspirations. As Secretary General of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan of Iran (KDP-I, PDKI), he peacefully advocated an autonomous status for Kurdistan within the framework of a democratic and secular Iran, and was able to rally all Kurdish political parties around this slogan and establish links with Iranian secular opponents with a view to preparing a democratic alternative to the regime of the Ayatollahs.
After Khomeini launched the jihad against the Iranian Kurds in August 1979, the Kurdish resistance, under the leadership of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, sought to establish alliances with other Iranian democratic forces and personalities and to seek international support. Ghassemlou, a defender of democratic socialism, quickly found his place within the Socialist International. His international influence, his political vision and his ability to rally democratic opposition to the Islamic Republic made him the number one public enemy of Tehran. On Khomeini’s death, the new Iranian President Rafsanjani offered him talks, claiming that the regime was prepared to settle the Kurdish question peacefully and to democratise itself. It was while trying to give a chance to dialogue that Dr. Ghassemlou, who had come to Vienna (Austria) for these “peace talks”, was assassinated by the Iranian “negotiators” on 13 July 1989 together with two of his collaborators. This state crime has unfortunately not been punished. The identified perpetrators, who were in possession of diplomatic passports, were allowed to leave Austria freely and return to Iran, where they were congratulated and promoted. The Austrian justice system has not sought to identify the instigators of this state terrorism in the heart of Europe, still less to take them to justice.
Thirty years later, the ideals that guided Dr. Ghassemlou’s struggle for the emancipation of the Kurdish people and for a democratic and secular Iran that respects its political, cultural and linguistic diversity remain as relevant as ever in Kurdistan, Iran and the Middle East. This is why the Kurdish Institute, of which he was an ardent defender, has invited those who knew Dr. Ghassemlou well to pay him a final tribute and to bring out their testimonies in order to transmit his democratic message, his humanist values and his political thought to the new generations.
The interventions were distributed over several round tables on different periods of Dr. Ghassemlou’s life. In the first one, devoted to the years of training and exile, his daughter, the architect Mina Ghassemlou, gave a moving testimony by addressing her father directly in front of the audience. Political companions, former leaders of the PDKI, youth friends and Kurdish political leaders such as the former Speaker of the Parliament of Iraqi Kurdistan Adnan Mufti also spoke. The second round table on “Years of Resistance and Relations with the Kurdish World”, moderated by Senator Rémi Féraud, gave the floor to several Kurdish political leaders from Iran and Turkey, as well as to Fatoş Güney, the wife of the filmmaker Yilmaz Güney, of whom Ghassemlou had become a friend. Also, the former PDKI representative in Europe Aziz Mameli also came back to the responsibilities for the impunity of Ghassemlou’s assassins in 1989. Moderated by Hamit Bozarslan, the next table addressed Ghassemlou as a figure of the Iranian democratic opposition. Finally, the day ended with a last round table where spoke personalities who had met Ghassemlou internationally, journalists or researchers, humanitarian leaders or non-Kurdish political figures, such as Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Médecins sans Frontières and Médecins du Monde, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Florence Veber, former president of Aide Médicale Internationale...
All the speeches can be listened to on the site of the Kurdish Institute (->). Their final version will be published in a forthcoming special issue of the journal Etudes Kurdes.