After the singer of "Grup Yorum", Helin Bölek, who died on 3 April, now the band’s bassist, Ibrahim Gökçek, has died in hospital on 7 May, two days after stopping a 323-day hunger strike. Gökçek, who weighed only 40 kg at the time of his death, was buried in Kayseri, despite opposition from ultra-nationalists. The group, trying to be a voice for all oppressed people and minorities, sang in Turkish as well as Kurdish and Armenian and addressed social issues such as the 2014 Soma mine disaster, where 301 miners died due to lack of security measures. On the 11th, one of the prosecution witnesses in the group’s trial confessed to giving evidence under threat and indicated that he wanted to retract his testimony. After the death, two judges, Ayşe Sarısu Pehlivan and Orhan Gazi Ertekin, posted messages of sadness on social networks. The Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK) immediately suspended them and launched an investigation, accusing Ertekin of “propaganda for a terrorist organization”. As for the Soma tragedy, the Ankara governor banned its public commemoration, planned on the 12th, “because of the health measures taken against the epidemic”. The head of the DISK trade union in the capital, Tayfun Görgün, ironically remarked that the epidemic justified the banning of a gathering of 25 people, while work in the mines went on in deplorable conditions of promiscuity ...
In a catastrophic economic context, the government is clearly concerned about popular protest. On May 1st, the police cordoned off the DISK headquarters in Istanbul and imprisoned its president Arzu Çerkezoğlu with 25 of its members, banning access to Taksim. The Turkish president said: “We will continue to protect the rights of our workers”, which makes think when reading last TürkStat statistics on the matter: during the last six years, the number of accidents at work has increased fivefold, with 1.736 victims in 2019 alone (Bianet). As for the economic indicators, which were already critical before the epidemic, they have worsened even more: the IMF forecasts a 5% contraction in GDP and an unemployment rate of 17.2% for 2020... As foreign investors are withdrawing massively, eight billion dollars have left the country since January, leading to the collapse of the currency (-17%) while in 2021 Turkey will have to repay 168 billion dollars (Le Monde). The costly projects so close to Mr. Erdoğan’s heart are increasingly criticized, while tourism revenues have almost vanished. The president continues to sail on sight, stumbling around between sanitary closures and temporary reopenings, short-term policies essentially intended to preserve his grip on power (New York Times). Refusing to ask for a loan from the IMF, Erdoğan is now trying to get closer to those he spent so much time insulting: the European Union and the United States. In a letter to the EU sent on 9 May, he wrote: “We are all in the same boat”, and he has delayed the deployment of the Russian S400 missiles... With regard to his internal opinion, he is trying to divert attention by resurrecting the project to return the former Basilica of Saint Sophia to the Muslim faith (Le Monde).
Despite statements by the president and the government about a “gradual return to normalcy”, Ozgur Karabulut, president of the progressive construction workers’ union, told the New York Times: “In our workplaces, we are seeing the opposite. [...] From what our members tell us, the disease continues to spread”. DISK also notes in a report that its members are three times more likely to be infected than the general population... Moreover, the government, while it has released 90.000 common law prisoners, including extreme-right-wing gangsters, has left in prison elected officials, journalists, lawyers, community activists... whose only fault was to oppose without violence Erdoğan’s autocracy. In doing so, Ahmet Insel noted on the 20th in an interview with Orient-XXI, “the regime is clearly revealing its nature”. While the Turkish health system has indeed demonstrated its resilience in the face of the epidemic, conditions in prisons remain scandalous. On the 4th, HDP Ağrı MP Dilek Dirayet Taşdemir reported a testimony by former MP Halil Aksoy, 72. Detained at Kandıra, he informed his family by phone that he had not received any hygiene products for protection against the virus, except for a bar of soap two months earlier, while the prison shop had nothing. On the 11th, two different reports from lawyers and human rights defenders reported the spread of the epidemic in prisons and asked the authorities to provide the necessary hygiene products to prisoners and to test them (Bianet). The Kurdish journalist Nurcan Baysal denounced in several articles the inaction of the authorities in the Kurdish regions of the country, recalling also that during the recent state of emergency 20.000 Kurdish health workers, including 3.315 doctors, had been dismissed. She also noted that in the Kurdish provinces, all displays of health instructions are in Turkish only. Her articles have led to judicial harassment, which International PEN denounced in a press release. On the 8th, the Silivri prosecutor’s office announced that 44 prisoners had tested positive. On the 12th, Istanbul HDP MP Züleyha Gülüm, criticising the lack of information from the authorities, asked in a parliamentary question to the Minister of Justice when and in which prisons 120 prisoners had tested positive, whether the released prisoners had been tested, and whether the guards had been tested... On the 22nd, it was announced that there were now 82 infected prisoners in Silivri and that one had died. On the same day, the Ministry of the Interior reported that in the previous two months, 510 people had been arrested for “unfounded” or “provocative” content posted on social networks about the epidemic. On the 26th, Diyarbakir HDP MP Feleknas Uca asked a parliamentary question about the health situation in Bayburt prison, reporting damning testimonies that the premises are not regularly disinfected, prison officers are in close contact with prisoners, Hygiene supplies are sold at “exorbitant prices”, hygiene rules are not respected in the distribution of food, and prisoners have not received hot water for the past two months... She reported that due to a shortage of masks, guards had given a single mask to eight detainees, telling them: “The one who speaks wears the mask”... (Bianet)
Repression of the HDP continued throughout the month. On the 7th, the seven-and-a-half year prison sentence for “membership of an illegal organisation” imposed on Selma Irmak, the former co-president of the Congress for a Democratic Society (DTK), was upheld in cassation (RojInfo). On the 15th, eight new HDP co-mayors were arrested and replaced by unelected administrators. They are Berivan Helen Işık and Peymandara Turhan (Siirt), Eylem Çelik and Yaşar Akkuş (Iğdır), Ramazan Sarsılmaz and Özden Gülmez (Baykan), and Baran Akgül and Esmer Baran (Kurtalan). All were arrested at their homes. According to the HDP, the government has replaced its mayors in 45 of the 65 cities it won in March 2019. “As always, these new arrests are not the result of a court decision but of an administrative decision by the Interior Minister”, the HDP said in a statement.
For some HDP mayors who do not give enough matter to warrant legal charges, threats and intimidation are used. Kars’ co-mayor, Ayhan Bilgen, received on the 16th death threats via Twitter signed from “JITEM”, a paramilitary gendarmerie organisation responsible for numerous extrajudicial killings and cases of torture in the 1990s. Co-Mayor Şevin Alaca also received threats (Bianet). On the 18th, the mayor of Altınova, Casim Budak, dismissed on the 15th, was charged with “propaganda for a terrorist organisation” and arrested. On the 19th, the mayor of Iğdır, also revoked on the 15th, Yaşar Akkuş, was also arrested. On the 20th, Ankara HDP cadres, including its provincial co-chairmen, as they were preparing to hold a press conference in front of their offices to denounce the recent dismissals, were beaten by police and imprisoned. At the same time, 43 Kurds, including HDP members, were arrested in Özalp (Van) and three in Nusaybin (WKI). On the 22nd, 18 other members or supporters of HDP or BDP, including women members of feminist groups (including TJA, “Free Women’s Movement”) were arrested in Diyarbakir. On the 30th, the two HDP co-chairs from Batman province, Ömer Kutlu and Fatma Ablay, were imprisoned after a raid on the party’s provincial office.
Finally, on 29 January, the Ankara prosecutor’s office opened a new “terrorism” investigation against Selahattin Demirtaş for having declared during one of its hearings in January: “You will answer for all this before justice”.
At the same time, exactions against Kurds have increased. At the beginning of the month, a young Kurd was stabbed to death in Ankara by three ultra-nationalists because he was listening to Kurdish music.
While 15th of May has been designated by the HDP as “Kurdish Language Day”, the Kurdish language, precisely, was not spared… On the 30th, the Governor of Siirt, after he became trustee following the dismissal of the elected mayor of the city, ordered the closure of the municipal library “Celadet Elî Bedirxan” (or Djeladet Ali Bedir Khan).
On the 31st, a mass grave was discovered in a cave in the hamlet of Gulbiş near Dargeçit (Kerboran in Kurdish), in the province of Mardin. This is not the first mass grave to be uncovered in this region where JITEM murdered thousands of Kurds. In 2011, the IHD Human Rights Association has drawn up a map showing the location of 253 sites near 21 towns where the bones of 3.248 missing persons have been found, but the total number of victims of these “murders by unknown perpetrators” (which Kurds derisively call “murders by well-known perpetrators”) is believed to be much higher: around 17.000 ... (RojInfo) The day before, the “Saturday Mothers”, who demonstrate every week in Galatasaray to obtain information about their children who disappeared after the 1980 coup d’état and during the 1990s and the trial of those responsible, had just marked the 25th anniversary of their weekly rallies, making their movement the oldest of its kind in the world (Ahval).
Other anti-minority threats and attacks were recorded during this month. On 8th May, the Armenian church Dznunt Surp Asdvadzadzni of Bakırköy, in Istanbul, was attacked by an individual who tried to set it on fire, without success, before fleeing. A suspect was arrested. On the 12th in the United States, the Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) requested in its annual report that Turkey be placed on the watch list of countries “engaged in or tolerating serious violations of religious freedom”, denouncing threats and violence, including at least two assassinations (Ahval). In a parliamentary question to the Minister of Justice, HDP MP Garo Paylan asked whether the “hate speech” made on 4th of May by the Turkish President, who had referred to Armenians as “those who escaped the sword” (kılıç artığı) – a clear reference in Turkey to the Armenian genocide, which is otherwise denied, could have a part of responsibility in such attacks. On the 29th, the Hrant Dink Foundation, named after the Armenian newspaper editor who was murdered by a Turkish nationalist in January 2007, announced that on the 29th it had received several threatening e-mail messages containing the slogan: “We can arrive suddenly one night” (Bianet). The journalist’s relatives had already heard this sentence before he was murdered and it is interesting to note that it was also with these words that Erdoğan announced last October the imminent Turkish invasion of Rojava.
Precisely with regard to military operations, Turkish soldiers continued their desecration of the graves of Kurdish fighters, already numerous during the previous month, in the provinces of Van and Diyarbakir. Moreover, two soldiers were killed and four others wounded on the 2nd in fighting with the PKK near Bitlis, and on the 14th, the Ministry of Defence accused this organisation of having killed two civilians in an attack in Özalp (Van), an operation which was later condemned by the HDP. Finally, on the 22nd, the chief of naval staff, Rear Admiral Cihat Yayci, who was close to the nationalists and the architect of the Turkish-Libyan maritime demarcation pact concluded at the end of November, was dismissed by presidential decree and transferred to the general staff. Yayci declared that he had been the victim of a “plot” and resigned from his new post three days later. The dismissal of this staunchly anti-Western officer, proponent of a Turkish-Russian rapprochement, may once again be linked to the economy: in this respect, Turkey can hardly expect help from Russia (Le Monde).
Rojava is in existential danger. Threatened by the coronavirus epidemic, almost abandoned militarily by its Western allies, it finds itself caught between the constant threat from the North, now reflected in the fierce Turkish-Jihadist occupation of Afrin and the eastern Euphrates, and the threat from the South, a Syrian regime still stuck on its Ba’thist ideology. In this situation, Kurdish unity is more urgent than ever. The rival Kurdish parties, which have been in conflict for years, have seen the importance of renewing contacts and have been in discussions for six months. Negotiations are certainly far from easy between the PYD, which dominates the Administration of North-East Syria (AANES) and is considered by Ankara as a terrorist group, and the ENKS (Encûmena Niştimanî ya Kurdî li Sûriyê, Kurdish National Council of Syria), belonging to the Syrian opposition precisely supported by Ankara, but the stakes more than justify the efforts. Among other things, speaking with one voice could enable the Rojava to overcome the Turkish opposition and finally participate in the discussions held in Geneva under the aegis of the UN to try to find a political solution to the Syrian civil war.
Paradoxically, while Turkey, whose foreign policy is still decidedly directed by its anti-Kurdish obsession, sees these discussions with great hostility, many external actors are interested in a success, which, beyond the Kurds, could benefit Syria as a whole. According to an anonymous source close to the ongoing process, the first direct meetings between PYD and ENKS took place at the beginning of April in an American military base near Hassakeh, in the presence of the Special Adviser for Syria William Roebuck and the Commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Mazloum Kobanê (Al-Monitor). At the beginning of May, several members of the different parties claimed that meetings had also taken place with a French delegation (RFI), which had come to Syria, among other things, to advance unity among Syrian Kurds, and, according to the Middle-East Monitor, other discussions had also involved the Russians.
In fact, on 25th April, when Mazloum Kobanê announced in a press conference held in Qamishli that “remarkable progress” had been made, he gave substance to this hope, saying: “The two sides are discussing the adoption of a unified political vision for the future of Syria, based on the discussion of a project presented by the American side”. According to Kobanê, after holding at least four meetings in the framework of the negotiations, both sides agreed on the following: Syria will be a federal, democratic and pluralist state; the current regime is an authoritarian and dictatorial regime which uses violence against its opponents; the Kurdish areas constitute an integrated political and geographical unit”.
On 12th May, Turkey described the talks as a “plot to give space for international representation” to the “terrorist organisation in northern Syria”. On the same day, the Turkish Foreign Ministry, castigating Greece, Egypt, Cyprus and the United Arab Emirates for the current tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, accused France of being the mentor of this “axis of malevolence” seeking to “establish a state of terror in Syria”. Ankara’s degree of concern is marked by the unprecedented attack on the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region Nechirvan Barzani, accused of having been “commissioned” by France and the United States to implement the plot (Al-Monitor). On the 15th, the head of Turkish diplomacy, Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, warned the ENKS not to conclude an agreement “with the PKK / YPG” (Rûdaw).
Despite Turkish threats, twenty-five Kurdish parties in Syria, including the PYD, announced on the 19th in Qamishli in a joint declaration the formation of a unitary organisation, the “Kurdish National Unity Party”. In fact, it seems that the Turkish invasion of October 2019, following the exactions of the occupiers of Afrin, played a decisive role in making this result possible. It remains to be seen whether the new organisation will actually become functional; previous attempts at unity, such as the Kurdish Supreme Council, created in 2014 in Erbil under the aegis of Masoud Barzani, did not bear any practical fruit...
On the 26th, Amina Omar, co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), a political emanation of the SDF and the legislative body of the North-East Syrian Administration (AANES) once again situated the intra-Kurdish unity talks within a Syrian national framework endorsed by all ethnic and religious groups in the region. It reaffirmed that the CDS itself, which “includes many political figures and individual personalities from all ethnic and religious groups in Syria, such as Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs and Assyrians and their political parties”, is “a national, Syrian and democratic project [...] for all Syrians” (Rûdaw). On the 27th, after PYD and ENKS met again in Erbil, an ENKS official, Mohammed Ismail, told Kurdistan-24 that what was aimed at was a “comprehensive agreement” including “all aspects: political, administrative, military and economic”, adding that these talks had US support. On the 29th Mazloum Kobanê confirmed that the negotiations had moved to a “second phase”.
For their part, the jihadist mercenaries of Turkey, in violation of the ceasefire officially concluded in November 2019, and despite the spread of the coronavirus, continue their attacks, particularly to the west of Tell Abyad/Girê Sipî, a region where Turkey is still carrying out population displacements. At the end of the month, the AANES received more than three hundred inhabitants of the city, driven out by insecurity or forced displacements. On 7th May, the occupants cut off the water from the Alouk pumping station for the sixth time, depriving of water again nearly half a million people in Hassakeh province. On the 27th, Turkey denied preventing the supply of water to entire regions of northern Syria and accused, in a not very credible manner, the FDS (“the terrorist organisation PKK / YPG”) of being responsible for the cuts.
On the 25th, the Rojava Information Centre published a 52-page report detailing Turkish attacks, including frequent air strikes on civilian people and infrastructure (Morning Star). The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (OSDH) also accused pro-Turkish jihadists of burning several fields belonging to Kurdish farmers in Kobanê, Ain Issa, Zagran, and near the Christian town of Tell Tamer. It is disturbing to note that the ISIS jihadists were simultaneously using the same tactics in Deir Ezzor. At the same time, internal fighting between different jihadist factions near Serê Kaniyê / Ras al-Ain (WKI) intensified. On the 28th, an explosion of violence between jihadists from different factions of the so-called “Syrian National Army” (set up by Turkey and at its orders despite its name) caused the death of three civilians in Afrin, including two children. After the clashes, the jihadists of Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) discovered a secret prison of the Firqat al-Hamza (Hamza Division), where 11 abducted women, mostly Yezidi Kurds, were being held. The discovery sparked protests by thousands of Kurds in Aleppo (WKI). The next day, a demonstration reached the governor’s office, while some 20 human rights organizations working in the Syrian north, including Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR), called on the United Nations to set up a commission of inquiry into the violence and more generally into the abuses of the occupiers, to help put an end to the presence of these militias (Rûdaw). On the 30th, the AANES called in a communiqué on Russia, the United States and the United Nations to assume their responsibilities for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the mercenaries of Hamza Division, denouncing the silence of the international community and its submission to the “refugees blackmail” from Turkey. AANES said it held the Turkish regime responsible for all the abuses committed, particularly those targeting women.
In the United States, the Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) devoted a section of its annual report, published on the 12th, to Turkey. Also addressing the situation in the Syrian regions under Turkish occupation, the document calls on the U.S. government to “exert significant pressure on Turkey to provide a timetable for its withdrawal from Syria” and to ensure that neither the Turkish army nor its Syrian allies “extend their zone of control in the northeast” of the country. USCIRF also calls on the Trump administration to prevent Turkey from carrying out “religious and ethnic cleansing” in the areas it occupies, or “otherwise abusing the rights of vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities”. The report justifies its concern by pointing out that “in other areas previously seized by Turkey, such as Afrin, religious minorities continue to suffer persecution and marginalization, particularly Yezidi and displaced Christians”. Indeed, in Afrin, the Yezidi complained earlier this month that they are particularly targeted by the exactions of jihadi mercenaries occupying the region on behalf of Turkey. The latter consider them as “infidels” and “Zoroastrians” and have recently destroyed a number of Yezidi graves, including that of a holy man of that religion (RojInfo).
At the same time, the coronavirus epidemic continues to spread. On 1st of May, the Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat reported that AANES had isolated and confined Hassakeh the day before after three new cases had been found there, a couple from the town and a resident of Qamishli. The virus could have come from the regime-controlled hospital in that town (WKI). On the 11th, WHO announced in a tweet that it had sent 30 tons of medical equipment to the region, including protective equipment for health professionals and resuscitation ventilators. But on the 13th, an official of the AANES indicated that the shipment had not been received. Questioned on this subject by the Iraqi Kurdish channel Rûdaw, a WHO spokesman replied that it was being inventoried in warehouses in the region and would be distributed quickly. But the Rojava Information Center, quoting the Kurdish Red Crescent, said that all the aid had been sent to the city’s national hospital, controlled by the Damascus regime.
On the 17th, the AANES declared a mass amnesty for prisoners sentenced to light sentences for offences, who will see their sentences reduced by one third. Those with incurable or terminal illnesses will be released. Excluded from the amnesty are “rapists, drug traffickers, terrorists and wanted convicts” unless they surrender (Rûdaw). By mid-month, Syria officially had 58 cases of coronavirus and three deaths, and AANES reopened two crossing points with the territory controlled by the regime to facilitate the return of people to their homes (WKI). On the 21st, the International Committee of the Red Cross warned of the risk of a deterioration of the situation in the AANES-controlled areas, not so much because of the epidemic as because of the poor state of health services, food shortages and water cuts (France-24).
ISIS’s jihadists continue to be active in Syria. Earlier this month, as jihadist attacks increased, the SDF announced the dismantling of a sleeper cell in Raqqa and the seizure of its equipment. On the evening of 2nd of May, a group of prisoners from Hassakeh tried for the second time to escape by organizing a day-long mutiny. American helicopters assisted the SDF in regaining control of the prison, which was achieved through negotiations. The prison is located in the area regularly deprived of water by the Turks’ cuts, and it seems that fear of the coronavirus played a role in the events (Kurdistan-24). AANES once again reiterated its appeal to the international community to help find a solution to the situation of these prisoners. Attacks by ISIS increased during this month, particularly in the province of Deir Ezzor: an attack on the Basira oil field on the 3rd was repelled and one of the assailants killed (WKI), an ambush on the 7th in which 11 soldiers of the regime were killed, a new ambush on the 17th in which passengers of a vehicle, including an officer and two Syrian soldiers, were killed on a road in Deir Ezzor, then the next morning the bodies of seven pro-Damascus militia fighters killed by the jihadists were found on another section of the same road. At the same time, seven jihadist prisoners escaped from the al-Hol camp, four of whom were eventually recaptured.
Finally, with the support of the Coalition, the SDF were able to dismantle a dormant jihadist cell in al-Busriya (Deir Ezzor), confiscating explosive belts, weapons and military equipment. Two Iraqi jihadists blew themselves up during the operation.
The coronavirus epidemic continues to spread in the country, particularly in its prisons, from where alarming reports are beginning to emerge. As for the economic situation, it continues to deteriorate, to the extent that on 4th May, the parliament finally authorized a measure which had been planned for years: replacing rial by toman (10.000 rials). This elimination of four zeros on the banknotes will no doubt make counting easier, but is unlikely to bring down the inflation, which is soaring! Drawn down by the return of American sanctions in 2018, and now by the epidemic, the currency has lost 60% of its value... (New York Times)
The economic situation is particularly serious in Kurdistan, already a long-standing victim of the authorities’ policy of abandonment and now hit by the epidemic. More and more young people have no choice but to turn to the dangerous occupation of cross-border porter, kolbar, whose numbers are said to be approaching 70.000. This month, the number of these unfortunate people shot dead by the regime’s border guards has been particularly high. According to the human rights organisation Hengaw, one of them, a newly married man, was killed near Baneh on the 2nd, another, a father of three children, in Sardasht (Basnews), and a third seriously injured near Chaldiran, according to the human rights organisation Hengaw. Since early May, 12 kolbars have been killed and at least 40 wounded since January. To this must be added the victims of Turkish air strikes, which, as in neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan, have already forced thousands of people in border areas to leave their villages: on the 5th, two farmers were killed near Oshnavieh (Shino) (WKI), and on the 16th, a kolbar who had gone on the Turkish side, opposite Qotur, to sell cigarettes, was shot down 5 km from the border by an armoured vehicle and a second was wounded; another fell to his death near Shino (WKI). On the 24th, near Urumieh, another porter was killed and two brothers were wounded. According to the statistics of the Kurdish Human Rights Network (KHRN), in Western Azerbaijan, a province despite its name overwhelmingly populated by Kurds, in only five days, three kolbars or cross-border traders were killed and six others injured by Iranian and Turkish border guards. The following week, a second kolbar was shot dead by Turkish soldiers near Mako, four others wounded near Nowsud (opposite Halabja) and another in Saqqez (KMMK). On the evening of the 28th, Iranian border guards killed two kolbars near Khoy and wounded three others in Piranshahr (KHRN). At the end of the month, a new count since January showed 26 dead and at least 57 wounded (WKI), which means there were 14 dead and 17 wounded in May alone…
Also in these border areas, there have been numerous clashes this month between Iranian forces and Kurdish fighters. On the 6th, the Isna agency reported the death of three pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards), including an officer, near Divandareh (Kurdistan province) during a fight with an unspecified “counter-revolutionary group” (AFP). On the 20th, state television reported the deaths of two Kurdish fighters in another skirmish near Marivan. On the 29th, three border guards were again killed, this time near Sardasht (Isna). At the end of the month, all the provinces of Kurdistan (Ilam, Kermanshah, Kurdistan and Lorestan) suffered numerous cases of arson, in which one soldier (WKI) died.
With regard to the epidemic, the authorities continue to try to conceal its extent, both domestically and internationally. Many Iranians no longer have any confidence in the government, whom they accuse of having kept the secret only in order to keep 21 February elections on, even though they were very well aware of the seriousness of the situation. An unnamed witness told RFI: “The Iranian regime is only lying. All it cares about is its own interests. To stay in power, it needs to show that it is in control of the situation, even if it means sacrificing everyone”... On 6th February, Courrier International published extracts from a frightening report by the Washington-based Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation on the situation in prisons: it says that the death toll in custody is not included in the official statistics, that the guards are so frightened that they are taking days off without pay... Despite the announcement that 100.000 prisoners have been released (on 240 000), many of those normally eligible are still in cell. Deprived of permission for temporary release, some inmates caused riots in several prisons earlier this month, including Khorramabbad and Tabriz. The overcrowded conditions of the inmates do not allow for any individual hygiene, not to mention social distancing! Thus in Tehran there are 1.500 prisoners in three rooms! “For 500 prisoners [...] there were only 14 toilets and showers. Hot water ran for only one hour a day, between 4 and 5 a.m.”. In the women’s prison in Varamin, south of the capital, there was hot water for only two hours a day and disinfectants were five times more expensive than outside... “Deaths related to COVID-19 in prisons began in mid-March. Some released prisoners have talked about quarantining about 60 people, of whom we have no more news...”.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) has regularly published a count of deaths due to the epidemic in 319 cities across the country: more than 41.000 cumulative deaths on 13th May, more than 42.800 on 17th May, more than 43.800 on 23rd May, and on the afternoon of 31st May, more than 48.200: a minimum of 7.200 deaths in twenty days, far from the official figures, which are around 7.800 cumulative deaths at the end of May, or about 1.700 in the month. Why such a difference? On the 13th, the newspaper Jahan-e-Sanat wrote: “The daily decrease in the number of reported deaths gives the impression that the situation is normal... In the cities, people with COVID-19 are no longer taken to hospital and are left without adequate care (to die) and sent directly to the cemetery”. Those who do not die in hospital are not necessarily listed as having died of coronavirus... Nevertheless, President Rouhani announced on the 24th that as of the 31st, “all office workers will have to return to work... The holy places and places of worship [...] will be opened the day after Eid al-Fitr in accordance with the instructions of the Ministry of Health. He added: “Some people are trying to scare the population [...] about the coronavirus, we will not tolerate it”.
According to the WKI, the disease has disproportionately affected Iranian Kurdistan, particularly the province of Kermanshah. For the province of Kurdistan, the CNRI gives the following figures: 660 deaths on the 13th, 790 on the 20th, 826 on the 24th, 920 on the 31st of May... On the 30th, the Imna agency quoted Gharib Sajadi, a member of the Sanandaj municipal council: “The situation is critical. Pretending that the situation is normal, under any pretext, aims to conceal the problem. Unfortunately, the death toll... is higher most days than the official figures... Recently, five and sometimes six suspected coronavirus-positive deaths are buried every day at the Behecht-e Mohammadi cemetery”. The Tasnim agency quoted the same day the vice-president of the Kurdistan Faculty of Medicine: “The growing trend of COVID-19 spread in the cities of Sanandaj, Saqqez and Marivan is very worrying”.
But even such an epidemic cannot stop the repressive machine in Iran. On the 2nd, the KHRN expressed its concern for the Kurdish political prisoner Zeynab Jalalian. Arrested by the Kermanshah Etelaat (Intelligence) in February 2007 and accused of belonging to the PJAK, she was sentenced to death in December 2008 for “armed actions against the Islamic Republic of Iran and membership of the PJAK”, a sentence commuted to life imprisonment in November 2011 thanks to pressure from human rights defenders. After 13 years of detention in Khoy, she was transferred on 28 April to an unknown location for interrogation on new charges against her. Described in 2018 by Amnesty International as “seriously ill”, Jalalian went on hunger strike in February 2016 to protest against the lack of medical care (Rûdaw). Other Kurdish political prisoners were also transferred to secret locations. On the 6th, Etelaat warned four Kurdish activists in Sanandaj not to criticize the executions of dozens of political prisoners in the previous two weeks. The regime executed three other Kurdish prisoners in Sanandaj and Urumieh in the first week of May. The KMMK also reported that the Etelaat had threatened activists planning to organise a May Day action (WKI).
On the 12th, political prisoner Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee sent a letter from her cell in Qarchak, near Varamin, revealing that the authorities were increasing the pressure on women prisoners by transferring them away from their families, and in particular for Zeinab Jalalian, who had just been transferred from Khoy to Qarchak. Iraee also mentioned the arrival of another Kurdish political prisoner, Sakineh Parvaneh. On the 16th, it was learned that the Franco-Iranian anthropologist Fariba Adelkhah had been sentenced to five years in prison for “gathering and collusion to act against national security” and “propaganda” against the Islamic Republic. His lawyer, who managed to avoid conviction for “espionage”, said he would appeal. It appears that Iran is seeking to use the researcher as a hostage to obtain the release of one of its diplomats, Assadollah Assadi, imprisoned in Belgium after participating in an attempt to attack a meeting of the People’s Mujahideen in Villepinte in June 2018 (Le Monde). Discreet negotiations are already under way with the United States to “exchange” a former US Navy officer held in Iran for two years, Michael R. White, in exchange for an Iranian-American doctor whose name has not been specified, detained in the United States. Suffering from coronavirus, White was provisionally released in March and is now at the Swiss embassy in Tehran which represents American interests in Iran (New York Times).
On the 19th, the regime also arrested a 17-year-old boy and another man in Piranshahr. On the same day, Arsalan Khodkam, a political prisoner incarcerated in Urumieh Central Prison for trouble to security, was sentenced to death. His family was warned that he would be executed after Ramadan on 23rd May. Originally from Mahabad, a former member of the PDKI, Khodkam had joined the Pasdaran in the 1990s before being arrested and tortured to force him to confess. According to Hengaw, the regime has executed 25 Kurds since January.
In Kermanshah, four other Kurdish activists arrested earlier this year by Etelaat were given nine months in prison for “propaganda against the Islamic revolution” and “membership of Kurdish parties”, and lawyer Suhaila Hijab was arrested on the 23rd. Etelaat also arrested three other Kurds in Urumiyeh, and in North Khorasan, seven members of the Kurdish Teachers’ Union received between three and five years in prison for their activities. Finally, on 28th in Kermanshah, a 58-year-old woman, mother of seven children, Assieh Panahi, died of a heart attack when municipal officials she was trying to prevent from destroying her house sprayed her with pepper spray. Panahi was one of tens of thousands of Kurds whose homes were destroyed in the November 2017 earthquake and who have still not been re-housed. She was accused of rebuilding her house without permit.
Finally, on the 10th, during maritime manoeuvres, a “friendly fire” killed 19 people and wounded 15 on board a logistics support vessel, the Konarak, which was probably hit instead of a training target it was too close to due to a firing error by the frigate Jamaran. After the destruction in January of the Ukrainian civilian aircraft over Tehran, this incident dealt a further blow to the credibility of the Pasdaran, after the successful launch at the end of April of a military satellite.
Iraq seems to have finally overcome its political crisis to, perhaps, give itself a functioning government... On the night of 6-7 May, the new Prime Minister and former head of intelligence Mustafa Al-Kadhimi obtained the confidence of Parliament. He was generally supported by the Kurdish parties, most Sunnis and some Shiites, despite opposition from several pro-Iranian militias and parties. But only 15 of the 22 ministers he proposed were approved, and the dispute still persists over the as yet unallocated Oil and Foreign Affairs portfolios. This still incomplete cabinet takes the reins of a country hit by several simultaneous crises: an expanding COVID-19 epidemic, Iran-US tensions on its soil, the persistence of ISIS’s attacks, a budget more than halved by the fall in the price of oil...
It was in this difficult budgetary context that discussions resumed between the Federal Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In mid-April, the previous government had interrupted the disbursement of funds for the payment of KRG civil servants, even asking for the reimbursement of previous transfers: it reproached the KRG for not having delivered any oil cargoes, despite the agreement reached in December. On the 6th, as the new cabinet was to be presented to parliament, KRG Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani visited Baghdad to try to resume talks. Agreement proved difficult to reach. Three successive KRG delegations visited the capital during the month, as the federal government refused to make a long-term commitment. At the end of May, Baghdad agreed to send the funds needed to pay one month’s salary, with discussions to continue for the following months.
During this period, the delays in payments, which have accumulated since February, have led to protests in Kurdistan. On the 16th, a teachers’ demonstration was held in Derbandikhan, while in Dohuk, around 100 civil servants, activists and journalists were briefly arrested by the security forces as they gathered to demonstrate. After receiving funds from Baghdad, the KRG pledged at the end of the month to pay the February salaries promptly (WKI).
In other chapters of internal Kurdistan Region policy, the Suleimaniyeh Provincial Council submitted to the KRG a decentralisation project drawn up with the support of the PUK and Goran (WKI), and for the first time in its history, on 7th September, the parliament of Erbil lifted the parliamentary immunity of one of its members. The MP in question is Soran Omar, of the Islamic Group of Kurdistan (Komal), whose immunity was put to the vote at the same time as that of three other MPs, Omed Khoshnaw, leader of the KDP block, Ali Hama Salih, leader of the Goran block, and Shirin Amin Abdul Aziz, another Goran MP. All four parliamentarians concerned were involved in court cases, but only Omar’s immunity was lifted. The decision is controversial, as the vote was boycotted by 53 of the 111 legislators, including many members of the PUK, Goran, the two Islamic parties Komal and Yekgirtû, and “New Generation”: these parties had all opposed the inclusion of the vote in question on the agenda. Following a complaint against him filed on 2 April by the KRG’s legal office, Soran will have to answer in court for his claims that Prime Minister Masrour Barzani owns a company and a bank. Opponents of the vote accuse the KDP of having called for a vote on the immunity of other MPs only to cover up their aim of having Soran (Rûdaw) convicted.
Iraq is still facing the COVID-19 outbreak. While the spread of the epidemic appeared to be slowing down, the strict containment decreed in mid-March was partially lifted in April, which could be the cause of the outbreak of new infections observed in May... At the end of April, the KRG also relaxed health measures, in particular by authorising again travel within the Kurdistan Region, although subject to prior request.
On the 2nd, after two months of closure of educational institutions, which were scheduled to reopen on 10th May, a few weeks before the summer holidays, the KRG Ministry of Education began to bring distance learning courses online on the Internet, which are also broadcast on the Ministry of Education’s educational channel, pending a broadcast via the NileSat satellite. In addition, several telephone and internet providers have offered free access to students (Rûdaw). On the 5th, with the support of UNICEF, satellite broadcasting of lessons for 1,5 million students was launched on a channel called Kanalî Perwerde (educational channel). The programmes also address health instructions, such as handwashing and respect for social distancing. Satellite broadcasting makes these programmes accessible to people without internet, such as displaced families in camps (Kurdistan-24).
Also on the 2nd, the KRG Ministry of Health announced six new cases of COVID-19, all in Soran district (Erbil), for a total of 387 since the beginning of the epidemic, resulting in five deaths and 330 recoveries. The Ministry also announced that 1.307 people were still under quarantine, out of 9.681 to whom this measure had been imposed (Kurdistan-24). In the middle of the month, the ban on travel to other Iraqi provinces was extended at least until the end of Ramadan on the 24th. Fearing a spike in contamination if the festivities were allowed, the Federal Government imposed a curfew for Eid throughout the country while the KRG took a similar measure by introducing a 3-day containment. In Kirkuk, despite the gradual reopening of businesses, the containment was extended by one week after the discovery mid-month of seven new cases in the province (WKI). On the 24th, the Iraqi Ministry of Health announced 197 new cases in 24 hours out of a total of 4.679 with 160 deaths, while the KRG announced 20 in Kurdistan out of a total of 496... While Iraq conducted 6.500 tests in the last 24 hours, Kurdistan conducted 1.300. On the 27th, there was a clear and worrying acceleration of the spread, since the federal government announced 287 new cases in 24 hours and the KRG 25. Baghdad alone accounted for 1.426 cases, a third of those in the whole country. In the afternoon, the KRG Ministry of Health decided to extend the travel ban between the Kurdistan Region and the rest of the country until 15th June (Kurdistan-24).
On the 27th, the total number of infections was 5.135 throughout Iraq, including 175 deaths and 2.904 recoveries; in Kurdistan it was 532, including five deaths and 407 recoveries. But on the 29th, the curve jumped again with 322 new cases in the whole of Iraq in one day and 34 in Kurdistan, for totals of 5.457 and 566 cases respectively. Kurdistan then decided the end of the school and university year, with the abolition of final exams. On the 30th, while Iraq announced 416 new cases, Kurdistan announced only 9, but this low figure should not lead to complacency, as it could partly reflect insufficient testing capacity (Kurdistan-24). During the last week of May, in fact, about 250 new cases, most of them in Suleimaniyeh province, were counted in Kurdistan, which reacted by imposing a new one-week confinement... There were then 745 cases, 434 recoveries and eight deaths (WKI).
At the same time, ISIS continued to expand its activities. On 1st May, the jihadists launched an attack on several checkpoints in Samarra, 100 km north of Baghdad, on a scale not seen in months. The fighting, which lasted for several hours and required reinforcements, left 10 Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Units) dead. According to estimates, the organisation has 2.500 to 3.000 fighters, reinforced by returnees from Syria, in the province of Anbar and especially in the corridor separating the Iraqi military from the Kurdish pechmergas. After the attack on 1st May, the Hashd said they had suffered others in the provinces of Diyala, Salahaddin and even in Jurf Al-Sakhr, 60 kilometres south of Baghdad. ISIS has also multiplied sabotage of electrical infrastructures (Le Monde). Jabar Yawar, chief of staff of the Pechmergas ministry, confirmed the seriousness of the situation by declaring on Rûdaw that ISIS’s activities “are intensifying from day to day”: 85 attacks since January, resulting in 70 deaths and 161 wounded, and 41 kidnappings for ransom, usually of well-to-do civilians... Most of these attacks took place in April, a sign of increasing power. Yawar complained about the lack of coordination with the Iraqi army, while ISIS has been calling on his supporters to exploit the epidemic to escalate the attacks.
On the morning of the 11th, two Kurdish farmers abducted while harvesting their fields the day before were found dead near Khanaqin (Diyala). The farmers are trying to harvest as quickly as possible to escape the burning of their crops by the jihadists, some even going to their fields at night. In Kirkuk province, too, Kurdish farmers have suffered numerous fires, particularly on the 14th. While some of the fires were caused by jihadists from ISIS, the village chief of Palkana accused members of Arab tribes of seeking to drive out Kurdish landowners to appropriate their land, a return to the old Ba’th arabization policy. A report by the Iraqi Ministry of Civil Defence listing all known fires between 21 April and 14 May listed 88 incidents; the provinces most affected were Salahaddin (25 fires), Wasit (15), Diyala (9) and Babil (9), and those with the largest areas destroyed were Diyala and Kirkuk. ISIS claimed responsibility for the fires in Diyala on the 14th, but many others were attributed to electrical causes. On the 16th, the Kurdistan-24 channel complained that one of its teams covering the fires in Kirkuk, a correspondent and a cameraman, had been arrested near the village of Zangar. An officer threatened them with charges of “reporting ISIS’s activities” before accusing them of “lighting the fires to say the area is not safe”. The two journalists were released only after signing a written pledge not to return. Two journalists’ defence associations have called on the Federal government to open an investigation. The jihadists also set fire to several fields in Makhmur, and on the 18th in Qaratapah (Diyala) and Daqouq (Kirkuk). Some Arabs coveting land belonging to Kurds are trying to take advantage of the situation, as in Dibis (Kirkuk).
On the 20th, the Anti-ISIS Coalition, in coordination with the Pechmergas, launched near Makhmur, on the Qarachukh Mountains, several air strikes targeting the tunnels used as a base of operation by the jihadists to set their fires (Kurdistan-24). On the morning of the 24th, a Kurdish policeman was found decapitated in his vehicle in the Askari district of Kirkuk. His family thinks it was an attack by ISIS. At the end of the month, faced with an increase in the number of attacks, the Iraqi Ministry of Defence finally deployed reinforcements in the disputed territories area (WKI). On the 30th, the KRG Ministry of Agriculture denounced in a communiqué the “systematic fires” to which Kurds-owned fields have been subjected for weeks in the disputed territories between Baghdad and Erbil and asked that Kurdish farmers be protected from these “hate fires” repeated every year, the number of which has increased as the harvest period approaches (Kurdistan-24).
Violence resulting from the fighting between Turkey and the PKK has also hit the Kurdistan Region again this month. For two days between the 13th and 14th, intense Turkish artillery fire hit the entire border area of Dohuk province. A Pechmerga commander told Kurdistan-24: “In the last two days, the bombardments have intensified from the Zakho district on the border to the Amedi district, under the pretext of attacking the PKK in these territories, and have caused extensive damage to the property of the inhabitants, preventing them from working and going out in fear for their lives”. For several years, the continuous Turkish bombardments have caused the evacuation of more than 400 villages in this region, he added. After Turkey announced on the 13th that it had “neutralised” four PKK fighters in the areas of Khwakurk and Metina (Dohouk) with an air strike, the PKK attacked the Turkish military base of Kani Masi in the same province on the 14th. The fighting, which lasted for an hour, caused power cuts in the area. The presence of the PKK in Kurdistan continues to cause tensions between the KDP and the PUK. Last month, after a deployment of PKK peshmergas in Zini Werte, a PKK area of operations, the PKU sent its own pechmergas into the area to intervene (Al-Monitor)... On the 27th, the Turkish state agency Anatolia announced air strikes against the PKK in the province of Suleimaniyeh, near the Iranian border, which is quite rare, the strikes being aimed rather at targets further North. Five Kurdish fighters were also reportedly killed near Mount Asos, about 55 km North of Suleimaniyeh. The Turkish Ministry of Defence also announced the “neutralisation” of five other fighters in the Haftanin and Hwakurk (Al-Monitor) regions. On the 30th, another Turkish strike near Amêdi (Dohuk) killed a farmer and his son and wounded another person (Kurdistan-24).