The United Nations International Independent Commission on Syria published on 15 September a damning 25-page report on war crimes committed in the Syrian Kurdish regions occupied by Turkey and its Syrian Islamist mercenaries (https://undocs.org/A/HRC/45/31).
Numerous human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, had already sounded the alarm on cases of torture and rape, kidnapping, ransom demands, disappearances, population displacement and ethnic cleansing that are the hallmarks of these proxies of the Turkish army. According to the extracts published in the French daily Le Monde, the report shows systematic and organised human rights violations and “describes with hitherto unprecedented authority and in depth the order of terror imposed by Turkey”, especially in Afrin, Serê Kaniyê / Ras al-Ain and Tell Abyad / Girê Sipî. The French daily notably cites the case of prisoners forcibly rounded up to witness the gang rape, repeated by her jailers, of a young underage Kurdish girl... The document “precisely establishes the planned and specifically targeted nature, against the Kurds, of the exactions committed by pro-Turkish Islamist militias with the support of Ankara in northern Syria” (Le Monde).
These abuses are committed under the responsibility of the Turkish state, as occupying power, and its mercenaries. The Turkish military present in these areas, and who cannot be unaware of them since they have been denounced a thousand times over for months, have so far shown no willingness to stop them. On the contrary, when the Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, reminded Turkey on the 18th to “respect international law” and called for the immediate launch of an independent investigation into these abuses, the request was rejected by Ankara Foreign ministry, with the following answer: “[We reject] entirely the unfounded allegations [...] and the unjustified criticisms of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights against our country”.
The report also mentions the inhuman treatment to which the Turkish border guards (depending from the gendarmerie) regularly subject Syrians trying to flee the civil war: many are beaten and sometimes even killed after their arrest, with the happiest being humiliated by the Turkish gendarmes or rebel groups cooperating with them (Al-Monitor). On the 22nd, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported the abduction by Turkish-backed groups of two new Kurdish victims in Afrin. In the latter region, the same gangs are organising themselves to take over the olive harvest, whose time is approaching, as they have done in previous years.
At the same time, the attacks by ISIS jihadists continue. Earlier this month, a seven-member cell was dismantled at Şihîl (Deir Ezzor), and five home-made bombs were defused in Manbij. Attacks using motorbike bombs have hit the region controlled by the AANES (Autonomous Administration of North-East Syria), such as on the 14th in Diban (Deir Ezzor), where one civilian was killed and two injured. Another motorbike was defused the next day in Hassakeh.
The Al-Hol camp has seen new escapes (WKI), while hundreds of attempts have been thwarted. Several foreign families have been transferred from Al-Hol to the recently expanded Roj camp for a de-radicalisation programme. Aimed at former members of the organisation expressing regret and wishing to reintegrate, this programme has received 76 families since January (AFP). On the 22nd, the Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI) reported that an Iraqi woman, mother of a seven-month-old child, was found in Al-Hol strangled with electric cable, the latest in a long series of murders in the overcrowded camp. On the 25th, the Syrian Democratic Forces, with the support of the anti-ISIS coalition, launched a new operation on the Syrian-Iraqi border.
In France, 29 people were taken into police custody on the 29th in the context of an investigation opened last January into a terrorist financing network using cyber-currency. The organisers, two Frenchmen probably still in Syria, are suspected of belonging to the terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Cham, affiliated to Al-Qaeda. Among those in police custody are families who, apparently in good faith, sent the agent to their relatives interned in Syria... (Le Parisien)
Unity discussions between Kurdish parties of the two main Rojava tendencies, organised on the one hand around the TEV-DEM coalition (in power), dominated by the Party of Democratic Unity (PYD), recently enlarged within the PYNK, and on the other hand the ENKS (Kurdish National Council), in opposition, continued with the support of the United States. It seems that Turkey’s great displeasure at the prospect of a unity of the Kurds in Syria has caused some upheaval within the Syrian opposition to the Damascus regime, where the ENKS, unlike the TEV-DEM, is represented. On 14 September, the President of the Opposition Coalition (Etilaf in Arabic), Nasser al-Hariri, announced that he was dismissing the ENKS representative on the High Negotiating Committee (HCN, created in 2015 in Saudi Arabia), Hewas Egid, to replace him with Abdullah Fahd, an Arab. Hariri had already accused in a tweet sent on 2 September to the Arab League the Kurds of Rojava of seeking to divide Syria, denouncing the “agreements with separatist terrorist militias” – a wording directly cut-and-paste taken from Ankara’s speeches. However, he received no response from the organisation, which had just the previous week condemned Turkish military operations in Syria and Iraq. In a video conference held with the political committee of Etilaf, the ENKS Presidency strongly protested against Hariri’s decision, The ENKS has recently aroused Turkish anger both for its discussions with the PYNK and for its increasing criticism of human rights violations in the Turkish-controlled areas of Syria. In early September, ENKS President Saud al-Mullah said that the Turkish-backed factions were “perpetrating terrorist acts and practices, abductions, torture, killings and displacement of population before the eyes of Turkey”. According to a statement by Etilaf, ENKS called during the meeting on the Syrian opposition to ensure the return of people displaced from their homes by these groups (Kurdistan-24).
In a context of growing American-Russian tensions on the ground (several incidents have motivated a recent reinforcement of the American contingents with Bradley armoured vehicles), the Special Representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, arrived on the 20th in Hassakeh for meetings with the leader of the FDS, Mazloum Abdi, and the leaders of several ENKS parties. The United States, which also holds the regime and its Russian ally responsible for blocking the inter-Syrian negotiations in Geneva, is pushing for greater unity among the Kurds of Rojava, as a means to counter the advances of Damascus in the north of the country. However, there remain points of disagreement between the two Kurdish camps, and in particular the question of the return of the “Rojava pechmergas” of the ENKS to Syrian territory, where the AANES is more than reluctant to accept them... (Asharq Al-Awsat).
Finally, after nearly seven months of negotiations and despite this still unresolved difficulty, the PYD spokesperson, Sama Bekdash, announced on the 21st to the local media in northern Syria an agreement on a “supreme Kurdish reference” comprising six political points, including the definition of a Kurdish strategy, joint work for the return of civilians displaced by the Turkish invasions of Afrin, Serê Kaniyê and Tal Abyad, the representation of the Kurds in Syria, and how to protect their gains in the country. According to Bekdash, the “Kurdish Supreme Committee” will comprise 16 members from PYNK, 16 from ENKS, the other eight being independent personalities, four of them appointed by ENKS and the remaining four by PYNK. It is to be hoped that this agreement, contrary to those negotiated in Erbil and Dohuk in 2012 and 2014, will find its modalities of application, a necessary condition for the voice of the Kurds of Rojava to be heard in international negotiations. One of the positive points is the support given to the agreement by the United States and France.
Throughout the month, insecurity was evident in Rojava, which suffered several attacks, particularly in territories controlled by Turkey and its mercenaries. On the 12th, a bomb killed two people and wounded twelve in Serê Kaniyê / Ras al-Ayn in an attack targeting the pro-Turkish “Syrian National Army” (Ahval). The next day, Afrin was in turn hit by a car bomb attack that left at least three civilians dead and ten wounded near the headquarters of a pro-Turkish faction. According to SOHR, the explosion killed at least seven people, including a Turkish Red Crescent doctor, and wounded 30, among them children. In Deir Ezzor, the co-president of the Military Council of Deir Ezzor, affiliated to the FDS, Laila Al-Abdallah, escaped another assassination attempt, at least the fourth, when masked motorcyclists opened fire on her vehicle, injuring one of the passengers. ISIS, which continues to launch such attacks, could be responsible for this one. It is also possible that some of the attacks were carried out by agents of the regime seeking to create insecurity in order to discredit the AANES among the inhabitants.
The multiplicity of actors present in the field is also a source of tension. In some Kurdish villages, the inhabitants opposed the installation of a Russian post “for their protection”threatening to throw stones at their convoy (VOA). At the end of the month, the Russians tried unsuccessfully to put pressure on the AANES to prevent American military patrols near Tell Tamer, threatening to withdraw as to clear the way for new Turkish attacks. At about the same time, Russians and Turks resumed their joint patrols in Kobanê and near Idlib.
In mid-September, the AANES invited 150 local leaders and notables from north-eastern Syria to a Forum which called for reforms in agriculture and the education system, and for discussions with Damascus “without outside interference”. Representatives of the US State Department participated in the meeting. Earlier, Russia had initiated new mediation between the AANES and the Syrian regime. In addition, one of the AANES officials in charge of the Shahba IDP camps, where 200,000 former Afrin residents have taken refuge, accused Damascus of preventing the arrival of medical aid and humanitarian workers by demanding the payment of “taxes” when passing through checkpoints. Separated from the other AANES territories, the area is completely surrounded to the north by the Turkish army and to the south by the army of Damascus. Rojava recorded its first cases of coronavirus at the end of April. As of 4 September, according to figures from the co-president of the Rojava Health Council, Jwan Mustafa, the region had 624 cases of contamination, 40 deaths and 158 recoveries, which is causing concern in Shahba (Rûdaw).
Finally, on the 28th, the week of inter-Syrian negotiations held in Geneva under the aegis of the United Nations ended with a minimum agreement to meet again on an as yet unspecified date. The UN Special Mediator for Syria, Geir Pedersen, said he was encouraged that for the first time the participants had interacted and then separated without too much animosity and expressing a willingness to meet again (VOA).
Kurdish seasonal workers from Mardin who came to Kocaeli (Sakarya) to gather hazelnuts in a farm, mainly women with some teenagers, declared on their return on 6 September that, after working for a fortnight, they had been insulted and beaten on the 4th by their employer, his relatives and the inhabitants of the village (Bianet). Their attackers called them a “bunch of dogs”, threatened to call in the military (Ahval, Rûdaw) and threatened them with sticks, a scythe and even an axe... The governor of Sakarya first denied the event, before calling some of the victims to express his regrets. The prosecutor’s office in Kocaeli opened an investigation. After filing in court, two of the perpetrators were released on parole... The HDP has stated that it intends to put the case on the parliamentary agenda.
On the evening of the 11th, a second anti-Kurdish attack, this time on the workers of a building site in Afyon, left one dead, a 15-year-old Kurdish worker, and two wounded: after an altercation caused by dust from the building site, a man drew a pistol and shot two brothers at point blank range. The local police expelled the other workers from the city with the phrase: “Take your death and go away”. On the 12th in Van, the police prevented Kurdish MPs from attending the funeral, while soldiers were deployed to prevent any protest. In another incident, a 16-year-old Syrian refugee was killed, also on the 11th, in Samsun (WKI).
Also on the 11th in Van, two Kurdish peasants in their fifties were severely beaten by soldiers who allegedly forced them into a helicopter before throwing them into the void from the cockpit. One of the two men remained in a coma for twenty days before dying in hospital on the morning of the 30th. The other finally returned home, shocked to the point of stammering inconsistent statements. However, he did indicate several times that he remembered being thrown into the void after being beaten by ten to twenty men. The Al-Monitor newspaper was able to consult the medical report published on 17 September by the public hospital where the two men were treated. It mentions that the man was admitted after “falling from a height”, and states below that the emergency medical technician who brought him in said he had “fallen from a helicopter”... The two men had been taken by the military after a clash between the army and the PKK near their village which left three dead in each camp. Several HDP deputies demanded a parliamentary commission of enquiry into the case, and lawyers for the families of the two victims filed complaints against the alleged perpetrators for wilful killing, torture and dereliction of duty. The government denies the allegations and has opened an investigation… against the victims for “aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation”. Officially, the two farmers are said to have taken a fall while fleeing their arrest .
While the Turkish lira continues to fall (€0.11 as of 21 September) with the impact of the health crisis and tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, the Turkish president continues to run amok to re-legitimise his power by seeking new enemies, both internal and external: internally, it is still the “pro-Kurdish” HDP party that is criminalised, while internationally, after Syria and Libya, it is now in Azerbaijan, and against the Armenians, that Mr. Erdoğan has found a conflict to send “his” jihadists to...
Inside Turkey, the health crisis is being used as a tool of repression by the AKP-MHP alliance. First, they used the pandemic as an opportunity to pass a series of laws in parliament to increase their grip on society, such as the recent amendment on the bars. On the other hand, bans on rallies on health grounds make it possible to ban all opposition and social protests. Even journalists covering the demonstrations are fined for failing to respect social distancing. As for those supporting the government, they are obviously exempt from any harassment, as during the first collective prayer at Hagia Sophia on 24 July, where the police were conspicuous by their absence (Al-Monitor).
Arrests and convictions continue endlessly. On the 3rd, Sedat Şenoğlu, spokesman of the HDK (Democratic People’s Congress), a formation created in 2011 and whose members are partly Kurdish, was arrested in Istanbul, together with about 15 members of the Socialist Party of the Oppressed (ESP). On the 11th, HDP Diyarbakir MP Remziye Tosun was sentenced to ten years in prison for “belonging to an armed terrorist group”. Her appeal allows her to remain free for the time being (AFP). On the 17th, former HDP MP, prisoner and hunger striker Leyla Güven was imprisoned in Hakkari. She had travelled to the region to meet with the “Mothers for Peace”, a civil women’s initiative calling for a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish question in Turkey, before launching an appeal to this effect at a press conference. A woman member of the initiative, Fatma Turan, was arrested at the same time for insulting the Turkish president. Both women were released after giving evidence (Ahval). Ministry of Justice data show a 30% increase in cases of insulting the President in 2019: 26,115 persons were investigated, some 5,000 are to be tried and 2,462 are already in prison (Reuters).
Also on the 17th, in Diyarbakir, former HDP MP Sebahat Tuncel, already detained in Kocaeli awaiting an appeal on other charges, was sentenced to 11 months and 20 days in prison for insulting the president, whom she had described as a "misogynist" in 2016 (Ahval). The defence pleaded legitimate political criticism that falls within the scope of freedom of expression but had no effect on the verdict. Also in Diyarbakir, an HDP youth leader was abducted by three armed men on 19 October and found blindfolded in a park after receiving death threats. At Muş, four people were arrested for attending the funeral of a PKK fighter killed in 2016 (WKI).
At the same time, the Diyarbakir Prosecutor asked the Ministry of Justice to request an Interpol “red notice” (an international warrant) against the former HDP MP and Mayor of Diyarbakir Osman Baydemir, who is wanted for “membership in a terrorist organisation” and is reportedly in Britain.
On the 25th, in the biggest anti-Kurdish judicial operation since the beginning of the year, the Ankara public prosecutor’s office issued arrest warrants against 82 people in the framework of an investigation into the violent demonstrations that broke out in October 2014 to protest against ISIS’s siege of Kobanê and the passivity of the Turkish government. The ensuing clashes between demonstrators, fundamentalist groups and the security forces had resulted in the deaths of at least 37 people, particularly in the Kurdish provinces. Of those wanted, 20 were taken into police custody, while the others have since gone abroad or joined the PKK guerrillas. Ayhan Bilgen, co-mayor of Kars (elected in 2019), as well as several former HDP deputies and leaders, such as Sirri Süreyya Önder, Ayla Akat Ata, Altan Tan and Emine Ayna, and the HDP spokesman for the international Nazmi Gür, are among those arrested (AFP). The prosecutor’s office “has not given details of the charges against each of the 82 people, but ensures that the crimes and offences committed during the demonstrations include murder, attempted murder, theft, degradation, looting, destruction of the Turkish flag and assault and battery against 326 members of law enforcement and 435 citizens”, reports the Turkish daily Hurriyet. The prosecutor also announced his intention to send to parliament a summary of the charges against seven HDP MPs, who were members of the party’s central executive committee at the time, in support of a request for the lifting of their immunity. The same evening, a rally in support of the HDP was held in Istanbul with 200 people. Deployed in force, the police did not intervene (AFP). This new crackdown led to a series of convictions, both in Turkey and abroad. The co-president of the HDP, Pervin Buldan, recalled that during the demonstrations at the time, 47 members of this party had been killed, but that their names had not been made public.
At the same time, the situation in Turkish prisons continues to be of concern to human rights defenders. In a series of tweets, the wife of Demirtaş, Başak Demirtaş, stated earlier this month that their daughters had not been not allowed to see their father because of COVID-19 measures, while the same government was allowing huge crowds to gather at pro-government rallies... Asked about this in an interview, Selahattin Demirtaş said that it would not be right for him to make a scandal of not being able to see his daughters when, from death to torture and isolation to health problems, “a human tragedy is taking place in Turkish prisons”. On the 18th, several students sentenced to prison terms for membership of the PKK, who had gone on hunger strike in June to protest against the sanitary conditions of detention, were transferred from Kirşehir to Kayseri without their families being informed. Forcibly stripped on arrival to be searched despite their refusal, they were beaten by the guards the following night (SCF). Such strip searches, which according to Turkish law should be carried out by a doctor, are nevertheless commonly used to humiliate detainees.
On the 23rd, it was reported that the Kurdish political prisoner Sinan Gencer, who had been detained for 15 years, had died suspiciously in Van high security prison. The prison administration told his family that he had committed suicide, but the family, according to their last contact with Sinan, believe it to be a lie. He had been in solitary confinement for two years and had recently gone on hunger strike (Kurdistan for Women). On the 28th, three HDP leaders belonging to the group of 82 arrested on the 25th, including the co-Mayor of Kars, Ayhan Bilgen, had to be hospitalised after food poisoning due to meals provided by the police. Lawyers for the detainees stated that all the arrested had complained about the poor quality of the food. A group of HDP members gathered in front of the Ankara police station in protest.
In this context, the President of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Robert Spano, who visited Turkey from the 3rd to the 5th, was criticised on several points: he met the Turkish President, but no opposition figures, human rights activists or families of prisoners of conscience. Despite an invitation from Başak Demirtaş, he did not meet any Kurds. Nor did he publicly discuss human rights abuses in the country, and he accepted an honorary doctorate from Istanbul University, which has dismissed hundreds of its teachers for political reasons, although he had received an open letter from one of them about this. The essayist Mehmet Altan wrote to him: “The people who are offering you this degree are the ones who dismissed me and my colleagues”. Was it enough in his acceptance speech to recall that “academic freedom is protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights” and to state that he accepted this distinction “in the name of the protection of democracy, human rights and the rule of law”? Refusing the diploma, as HDP co-president Mithat Sancar had asked him to do, would probably have struck a greater chord... and sent a message of firmness to the government.
Another decision that shocked human rights defenders was that of France, on the 16th, to expel to Turkey the Kurdish NGO activist Mehmet Yalçın, who had been living near Bordeaux since 2006. While his asylum application was being processed, the Gironde prefecture had him taken by the police from his home to a detention centre from which he was quickly expelled, which “puts his life in danger”, accused his Bordeaux lawyer (AFP). As soon as he got off the plane, he was taken away by the Turkish police...
Turkey does not only use Interpol to try to get hold of refugee opponents abroad, as it does not hesitate to use its intelligence agency (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı, MIT) and even local Turkish communities to act on the spot. In Austria, where 200 to 300,000 people of Turkish origin live, the Minister of the Interior, Karl Nehammer, announced on 1st September in a televised press conference the arrest of an individual spying on Austrian soil on behalf of Turkey. Recruited by the MIT to provide it with information on Turkish citizens living in Austria or Austrians of Turkish origin, he will be charged with espionage (Ahval). The individual was unmasked during the investigation into the clashes that broke out at the end of June when Turkish ultranationalists belonging to the “Grey Wolves” attacked in Vienna a peaceful Kurdish demonstration protesting against the attack in Turkey on tourists from Iraqi Kurdistan (Al-Monitor). Nehammer also recalled that between 2018 and 2020, more than 30 Austrians were imprisoned in Turkey before the MIT try to pressure them onto recruitment. The minister concluded his announcement with the following strong statement: “We have a clear message to send to the Turkish Republic: Turkish espionage and interference in civil liberties has no place in Austria”.
Also in Austria, Berivan Aslan, an Austrian politician of Kurdish origin and member of the Green Party, announced on 23 September that she had been placed under police protection because of threats to her life: “The Turkish press and some circles are trying to present the incident as unfounded, but the murder plan is real. I have been personally informed [...] by the Austrian secret service”, she told Ahval. Feyyaz Ö., an Italian national of Turkish origin, who admitted to working for the MIT, told the Austrian authorities that he had been assigned to kill Aslan. What could be the motive? Having taken an interest in the minorities living in Austria, she had uncovered in Vienna and in several provinces of the country a network of MIT agents tasked with creating unrest among the Turkish and Kurdish communities. During his interrogation by the Austrian anti-terrorist services, Feyyaz Ö. also admitted being the source of the false testimony that led to the arrest on terrorism charges of Metin Topuz, the employee of the American consulate in Istanbul sentenced to eight years imprisonment last June... Aslan said that Feyyaz Ö. had finally spoken because he thought his employers would have let him down after the assassination...
Secret documents revealed last August show that the MIT, Turkish consulates and embassy in Greece have gathered a lot of information on dozens of Turks suspected of joining the Gülen movement or having gone into exile to escape fabricated trials. On the Nordic Monitor site, an article signed by exiled Turkish journalist Abdullah Bozkurt, former Ankara-based head of the Today’s Zaman site, had on 22 August presented facsimiles of several documents circulated to Turkish police throughout the country (https://www.nordicmonitor.com/2020/08/more-secret-documents-confirming-vast-turkish-espionage-activities-in-greece-uncovered/). Again, Ankara reacted violently. Attacked on 24 September outside his home in Stockholm and wounded in the head, arms and legs, Bozkurt pointed the finger at the Turkish government the next day. “Gulenists have also been attacked in the United States”, said journalist Amberin Zaman, adding that the MİT had recently been accused of detaining suspects in secret sites to torture them. In Germany, intelligence service discovered that imams of the Turkish religious organisation DİTİB were providing the embassy with reports about Turkish dissidents (Ahval).
Ankara intends to continue this quasi-terrorist use of the MIT: while the Turkish president recently announced an increase in the agency’s missions abroad, it was given brand new 80,000 m² headquarters on last 26th of July.
Finally, multiple sources report the transfer to Azerbaijan by Turkey of Syrian jihadist fighters. Some come from Idlib, others from Afrin. The SOHR reported 300 fighters transported from Afrin on the 24th, belonging mainly to the Sultan Murad and Al-Amsha factions. The American website Daily Beast for its part mentioned on the 29th the presence among these jihadists of former ISIS fighters, including a commander. All were reportedly hired by Turkish private security companies close to the MIT.
The Iranian economy continues to suffer the full impact of US policy. Immediately after Washington’s September 20 announcement of the return of sanctions, the dollar jumped 2.5% against the rial, reaching 273,000 rials (compared to only 160,000 on March 20, the beginning of the Iranian calendar year). According to IMF forecasts, Iranian exports, which before the US sanctions exceeded 100 billion dollars, will barely reach 46 billion dollars in 2020; as for Iranian foreign exchange reserves, they will fall to 85 billion at the end of the year (a drop of 19 billion dollars), then to 69 billion in 2021 (a further drop of 16 billion)... Moreover, a large part of these foreign exchange reserves, blocked abroad, can only be used for the import of authorised goods. For the first time, the Iranian trade balance has become negative (Radio Farda). All this augurs ever more difficult months for the population, with high inflation and shortages, while the pandemic continues its galloping progression.
For 1st September, the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI) calculated the number of deaths due to coronavirus in 410 cities to be over 97,900. The next day, as Iranian President Hassan Rohani announced school would restart on the 6th, the figure was 98,300, including 2,006 in Kurdistan province and 4,300 in Lorestan. At the same time, Minou Mohraz, a member of the scientific committee of the Coronavirus Control Centre, declared: “Schools are the best place to transfer the coronavirus”... On the 14th, the PMOI announced more than 102,600 deaths in 431 cities in the country, including 4,573 in Lorestan, 2,029 in Kurdistan and 2,723 in Western Azerbaijan, and then more than 106.200 on the 20th. On this day, the Ministry of Health spokesperson announced 183 deaths and 3,097 new cases in 24 hours, the highest figures in 40 and 108 days respectively. The figures continued to rise afterwards, rising to 108,200 deaths on the 24th, to over 110,000 on the 27th, and on 30 September to over 112,000 in 444 cities. In total, according to PMOI calculations, September alone saw more than 14,000 deaths... Former Health Minister Mostafa Moyneh pointed to the higher proportion of victims in the medical community compared to the world average, attributing it to the “lack of basic means of protection, late detection or concealment of coronavirus circulation in the country” (NCRI). As a reminder, as of 29 September, the official number of coronavirus deaths was 25,779, figures that are increasingly disputed...
Kurdish cross-border porters, known as kolbars, continue to be the target of deadly fire from Iranian and Turkish border guards. The human rights organisation Hengaw indicated in its monthly report published on 1st September that five of them had been killed and 26 others wounded during August. In addition, the head of the Iranian border guards, Ahmad Ali Goudarzi, announced on 31 August during a visit to Iranian Kurdistan his intention to create a “smart border” by deploying surveillance devices, drones, sensors etc., along the 1,000 km border with Iraqi Kurdistan. These measures are likely to further aggravate the situation of the kolbars, not to mention the increased risks for the pechmergas of the opposition groups based in Iraqi Kurdistan (Rûdaw). At the same time, four new kolbars were killed in the first week of the month, three in Sardasht during an ambush of a group, and a fourth near Piranshahr. Others were injured, including two in Khoy and Nowsud, and another near Kermanshah. Another 57-year-old porter died in a fall near Marivan. At the end of the month, two other porters were arrested near Baneh and their horses shot down, another was arrested in Marivan, and two others were injured in Chaldoran (Chaldiran) and Baneh. Finally, the Turkish authorities demanded $1,650 from the family of a kolbar killed ten days ago in exchange for his body (WKI). According to the Kurdistan Human Rights Network (KHRN), at least 7 kolbars lost their lives in attacks by Turkish and Iranian soldiers between 23 August and 23 September (RojInfo). But in the last week of the month, more porters were wounded in Baneh and Sardasht, and the human rights organisation Hengaw estimated on the 29th that so far, 50 of them had been killed and 150 wounded since January... (WKI)
At the same time, the terrible repression of all forms of protest continued. Already, on 25 August, for the 32nd anniversary of the mass executions of political prisoners, families of victims who had gathered near the Khavaran cemetery in Tehran to remember their loved ones were quickly dispersed by the police. Let us recall that the current head of the judicial institution, Ibrahim Raissi, was a member of the sinister “Death Commission” which decided on the executions in 1988 (Radio Farda). On 2nd September, Amnesty International published a damning report on the “appalling repression” to which hundreds of detainees arrested following the November 2019 demonstrations were subjected (English: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/09/iran-detainees-flogged-sexually-abused-and-given-electric-shocks-in-gruesome-post-protest-crackdown-new-report/, French: https://www.amnesty.org/fr/latest/news/2020/09/iran-detainees-flogged-sexually-abused-and-given-electric-shocks-in-gruesome-post-protest-crackdown-new-report/). The report denounces the widespread use of torture (beatings, whipping, electric shocks, mock executions, mock drowning, sexual violence, forcible administration of chemicals, deprivation of medical care...). These methods were used to extort confessions that led to the conviction of their victims (to download the report in PDF: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde13/2891/2020/en/). Following the publication of this report, 22 human rights organisations sent an open letter to world leaders on the 9th, in which they asked for the creation of a select committee to investigate these facts at the next session (the 45th) of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The signatories call for an end to the culture of impunity “which has led the [Iranian] authorities to believe that they can commit crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations without repercussions at the national or international level” (Radio Farda).
Unfortunately, the regime continues to arrest, convict and execute. According to Hengaw’s report, at least four Kurds were executed in August in Sanandaj, Borujerd and Rasht, all for murder. Four other Kurds were arrested, Soliman Karimpûr and Xelîd Mohammedzad in Mahabad, Baized Chopan in Naghadeh and Sabir Salihi in Sanandaj (WKI). In addition, the Kurdish political prisoner Zeynab Jalalian, imprisoned for thirteen years in Khoy for belonging to the PJAK, transferred at the end of April to Waramin, near Tehran, after passing through Urmia and Kermanshah, was re-transferred at the end of June to Kerman, where she was placed in solitary confinement (Rojinfo).
On the 2nd, wrestling champion Navid Afkari was sentenced to death for the murder of a security employee in Shiraz during the 2018 protests. For the CHRI, the aim is to terrorise the population to remain docile, because Navid, like his two brothers, was tortured and then convicted despite evidence that he could not have committed the murder: “Death sentences handed down by a judicial system that ignores evidence, denies the rights of the defence and tortures its detainees to obtain false ‘confessions’ are nothing but murder”, said Hadi Ghaemi, the director of the CHRI. Navid Afkari was hanged on the 12th despite numerous international calls to halt the execution (Rûdaw).
On the 10th, Kurdish political prisoner Shakir Behrozi was sentenced to death in Urmia for “membership of a Kurdish opposition party” and “armed action against the state”. Accused of the murder of a pasdar, he was convicted without the presence of a lawyer on the basis of confessions extracted under torture. Behrozi had remained 7 months as a pechmerga of the PDKI and had left the party before returning to Iran. Although he had been assured that he would not face trouble, he was arrested last March (Hengaw) and then accused of belonging to the Komala. As in the case of Navid Afkari, he was unable to commit the murder of which he is accused: at least ten people signed a joint testimony that he was with them in a shop at the time of the murder (Kurdistan for Women).
On the 16th, the Iranian Supreme Court rejected the request for reviewing the death sentence of Kurdish political prisoner Heydar Qorbani, pronounced on 28 January for “armed rebellion against the state”. Qorbani had been arrested in Kamyaran after several pasdaran were killed near the city. Detained and tortured for several months by the Etelaat, he was sentenced in late 2019 to 90 years in prison and 200 lashes for complicity in murder. Again, he was convicted without any evidence to incriminate him (Rûdaw). At the end of the month, Amnesty International called for his conviction to be quashed and then published a statement that “his conviction is based on confessions obtained under torture during his enforced disappearance” (WKI).
Finally, there is still no news of two Kurds, Farid Pazhohi, arrested in Minivan in August 2018, and Jaffar Hassanzadeh, arrested last August. In Bokan, Etelaat officers investigated for the fifth time in a year the director of a Kurdish language centre, Amir Payada, for his activities. On the 18th, Pasdaran opened fire on three Kurdish shepherds near Oshnavieh, killing Hassan Khandanpour, 26, and wounding the other two, who were transferred to a hospital in Naghadeh. In Piranshahr, Sardar Menapour was arrested and charged with “membership of a Kurdish opposition party”, and on the 23rd in Mahabad, two brothers were arrested and charged with “cooperation with Kurdish political parties” (WKI).
On the 19th, human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, imprisoned since 2018 in Evin prison for a 38-year sentence and on hunger strike since 11 August to demand the release of Iranian political prisoners in the context of the COVID pandemic, saw her condition worsen and had to be urgently hospitalised. Her family has been forbidden to visit her, and her husband, Reza Khandan, told the CHRI on the 20th that her heart condition was worrying. The CHRI expressed its concern and called on the authorities to allow visits. She has been charged with “incitement to prostitution” for pleading against the mandatory wearing of the hijab. On the 23rd, despite her worryingly weak state, she was sent back to Evin, possibly to the prison clinic. On the 26th, her husband announced that Sotoudeh had broken her hunger strike.
Since his appointment last May, the new Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has had to navigate through difficulties of all kinds: hostility on Iraqi soil between the United States and Iran, a historic deficit due to the fall in the price of oil, a popular anti-corruption protest movement, the insubordination of the pro-Iranian Hashd al-Shaabi militias, a coronavirus pandemic... Despite the new government’s declared firmness, the Hashd militias, which enjoy a great deal of support at all levels of the administration, have continued their anti-American attacks, even extending them to other Western targets: on 15 September, three attacks carried out in less than 24 hours were made known, successively targeting a vehicle of the British embassy returning from Baghdad airport, a convoy of the anti-ISIS coalition, then an umpteenth rocket attack on the American embassy (intercepted by its air defence system). These actions are also aimed at weakening the Prime Minister, who has announced that he wants to fight these militias while carrying out anti-corruption reforms – statements that have earned him a certain neutrality and a waiting position from Iraqi protesters.
The Kurdistan Region is also confronted with the coronavirus, and is similarly held hostage because of its geographical isolation in a struggle taking place on its soil: that between the PKK and the Turkish state. Even if Iran carries increasing weight, the main economic border of Iraqi Kurdistan remains the Turkish border. This explains why the President of Kurdistan accepted the invitation of his Turkish counterpart, apparently launched in response to the French President’s visit to Iraq... This visit to Ankara on 4th September, during which discussions on economic and political cooperation were held with the Turkish leaders, including the President Erdoğan, while Turkey continued its operations in Kurdistan, was criticised both in Kurdistan and in Turkey.
While on the 9th, the Pentagon announced a halving of the number of US troops in Iraq to 3,000, at the same time, the US made it clear that it would react on its own, and strongly, if the Iraqi government failed to stop the attacks on its troops. Washington also threatened to hit the country to its wallet by ceasing to support its requests for international financial aid... This is undoubtedly what prompted the Hashd al-Shaabi to dissociate itself on the 24th from the “illegal military activities against national or foreign civilian interests” carried out in their name... (L’Orient-Le Jour) On the 26th, Mike Pompeo is said to have threatened to “kill every member of Kataib Hezbollah” if the Americans were to withdraw because of their attacks... (ISHM) Unconfirmed reports also say the Americans have told Al-Kadhimi that they are considering moving their diplomats to Erbil, Kurdistan of Iraq (WKI). On the 30th, as in response to these statements, six rockets hit an area near Erbil International Airport, home to a small contingent of International Coalition troops. Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) security forces said the fire came from a vehicle in the village of Sheikh Amir, east of Mosul, controlled by Brigade 30 of the Hashd al-Shaabi. The Iraqi army said it had arrested the perpetrators (ISHM).
At the same time, discussions continued between the KRG and the federal government. On the 6th, a KRG delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani arrived in Baghdad to meet with Al-Kadhimi. Discussions focused on the share of the federal budget allocated to the KRG, the sharing of oil revenues, the control of border crossings, and infrastructure development projects. On 8 September, an unnamed KRG source involved in the negotiations said that Baghdad had agreed to continue paying the salaries of Kurdistan civil servants, 320 billion dinars, to the KRG until Parliament approves the 2021 budget. This agreement is in line with the one reached in August, according to which Baghdad will pay its share to the KRG until the end of the year in exchange for the return under federal control of border crossings and 50% of Kurdistan’s customs revenue. On the 10th, Kadhimi in turn led a delegation to Kurdistan for a two-day visit to its various provinces. In Erbil, the Iraqi Prime Minister met, among others, the Prime Minister of the KRG Masrour Barzani, and the leader of the KDP Massoud Barzani (ISHM). Discussions also focused on the disputed territories and the joint security mechanism between the federal forces and the Peshmerga. On the 20th, a new Kurdish delegation, including officials from the KRG Ministries of Finance and Planning, travelled to Baghdad to pursue more technical discussions on the 2021-2023 budgets.
Both in Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq, the coronavirus pandemic has continued to spread with a surge due to the lifting of previous restrictions. In addition, on 30 August, thousands of pilgrims gathered in Kerbala to commemorate Ashura, without sufficient sanitary measures (RFI). On 1st September, the Iraqi government announced 3,404 new cases and 81 deaths in 24 hours; on 3rd September, the KRG announced 588 new cases in 24 hours (267 in Erbil province, 204 in Dohuk, 89 in Suleimaniyeh and 28 in Halabja) and 23 deaths. At that time, there were 30,535 patients and 1,148 deaths in the Kurdistan Region. The numbers of new cases at the national and KRG levels continued to increase in parallel: 264,684 cases, including 4,314 in the last 24 hours on the 7th in Iraq, and 303,059 sick on the 16th with 8,248 deaths. On the 29th, there were over 350,000 cases and 9,000 deaths, while the Director of Public Health, Riyadh Al-Halfi, declared that Iraq had not yet reached the peak of the epidemic and was still in the first wave... In Kurdistan, on the 17th there were 680 new cases and 29 deaths, the highest number of deaths recorded in one day since the beginning of the epidemic, for a total of 1,446 deaths out of 38,661 cases since the beginning of the epidemic (Kurdistan-24).
On the 30th, the Kurdish Ministry of Health announced 673 new cases and 24 deaths, 11 in Suleimaniyeh, 8 in Dohouk and 5 in Erbil, for a total of more than 47,000 cases and 1,749 deaths. The blood bank in Erbil launched an appeal for donors among the cured COVID patients, especially for group A plasma, which could save a seriously ill patient (Kurdistan-24).
As if the situation of the epidemic and the violence of the pro-Iranian militias were not enough, ISIS’s jihadists have added the victims of their attacks to this month’s toll. On the 3rd, they launched a night attack against a border guard cantonment in Anbar, near the Saudi border, killing five people (Kurdistan-24), and a suicide attack against the federal police left two injured in Hawija (Kirkuk). On the night of the 13th, another attack, unclaimed but attributed to ISIS, targeted the guards of a refinery near Kirkuk, five of whom were injured. Near Kirkuk, jihadists were targeted by an Iraqi air strike. In the city itself, the car of a Sunni academic was hit by a WKI home-made bomb. On the 27th, a security source reported that at least thirty Kurdish villages in the Khanaqin (Diyala) region had been abandoned because of ISIS’s attacks targeting this community in particular. On 28th, another security source reported that more than thirty families had left the village of Hitawin (Diyala) as a result of the attacks.
In the disputed territories, the Kurds are still confronted with eviction attempts by former Arab settlers installed at the time of Saddam Hussein’s regime. On the 13th, more than 500 members of Arab tribes attacked the Kurdish village of Palkana, north-east of Kirkuk. The Iraqi army, stationed nearby, intervened to prevent direct clashes. On the 21st, 14 Kurdish political parties sounded the alarm in a joint press conference about new attempts at Arabisation in Kirkuk. In the absence of the KDP, which has not returned to Kirkuk since it was taken over by Iraqi federal forces in October 2017, the participants denounced the anti-Kurdish policy of the current governor of the province, Rakan Al-Jabouri, appointed by Baghdad after the dismissal of Dr. Nejmeddin Karim, and the attempts at Arabisation, which particularly target the district of Daquq, in the south of the province, and the town of Sargaran, west of the city (Rûdaw).
On the 25th, Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani warned that tensions were rising in the disputed territories, denouncing “systematic” and increasingly violent attempts by Arab settlers to evict Kurdish families from their homes in a way that “threatens peace and stability”. Some Kurdish farmers, who have refused to leave, say that their wheat fields are burnt down during the night by strangers. In an apparent effort to allay Kurdish concerns, the Iraqi Ministry of Justice issued a decree on the 23rd declaring null and void all agricultural contracts signed at the time of the Ba’thist regime to “change demography in the disputed territories”. The Kurds welcomed this decree, but are waiting to see what its concrete application will be, as locally, the armed militias are often all-powerful. The tense situation might also facilitate attacks by ISIS (VOA).
Finally, Turkish anti-PKK military operations on the soil of Iraqi Kurdistan continue to cause material damage and civilian casualties in the border regions. Despite repeated requests from Baghdad and Erbil for Ankara to put an end to them, and the Turkish announcement that they were over, at the end of the month there seemed to be a move towards their intensification and the entry of Turkish ground troops into new areas. According to the report prepared by a parliamentary commission from Kurdistan parliament, at least 504 villages have been evacuated since the Turkish attacks started in May. In the longer term, the commission estimated that since 1992, when the first Turkish incursion took place, hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced as a result of both Turkish and Iranian strikes in Erbil province alone. Material losses are estimated at tens of millions of dollars (Rûdaw).
The Turkish military shows no respect in its operations for the civilian lives of the residents of the areas where it operates. On the 7th, Turkish soldiers even opened fire on farmers in the Bradost district, before launching new artillery strikes on the Amedi district (Dohuk) the following day. On the 9th, the Turkish Foreign Minister implicitly justified the continuation of the operations by claiming that the PKK was “transforming Iraqi Kurdistan into its bastion”. On the night of the 12th, new strikes by Apache helicopters hit villages in the Batifa (Zakho) region in support of the military engaged in intense clashes with the PKK; they caused fires that destroyed fields and orchards. In this district bordering Turkey, 13 villages out of 27 have been affected by the recent bombings, according to the mayor (Rûdaw). On Thursday 17, Turkish jets hit three villages near the Barwari region (Dohuk). On the 18th, the Turkish Ministry of Defence announced that two Turkish soldiers had been killed and a third wounded in PKK rocket fire at a base in Iraqi Kurdistan. The ministry also announced the (independently unverifiable) figure of 71 PKK fighters killed since 13 July (Reuters).
On the 20th, the destruction of a vehicle carrying three PKK members in Sinjar led to conflicting interpretations. While Iraqi security spoke of a Turkish drone, other sources attributed the explosion to a bomb. Roj News, close to the PKK, indirectly accused the PDK, which controls the area, by denying the presence of a Turkish drone, while on the contrary a Yezidi commander of local pechmergas accused the PKK of seeking to prevent the return of displaced persons in order to maintain its control over the area... (ISHM) At the end of the month, The Kurdish channel Rûdaw reported that the Turkish army had set up new military posts near Zakho, while new strikes hit the Batifa sector (WKI). It looks like Turkish operations in Iraqi Kurdistan are not set to stop soon…
On a less military note, the Kurdistan parliament passed in mid-month, as part of the law on the rights of medical patients, a new abortion law that legalises abortion under strict conditions. Abortion remains limited to cases where continuation of the pregnancy would endanger the life of the mother, and must be validated by a commission of 5 doctors. Several local women’s organisations have criticised the limitations of this law, including the lack of mention of unwanted pregnancies as in cases of rape, and pointed out the danger of honour killings, whereby a woman can be murdered because she is pregnant.