Dr. Najmaddine Karim, Vice-President of our Institute, founder of the Kurdish Institute of Washington and former elected governor of Kirkuk died in the night of Friday 30th to Saturday 31st October in Washington at the age of 71 years following a long illness.
A renowned neurosurgeon, militant of the Kurdish cause since his university years, patriot in solidarity with the Kurdish resistance movements in all parts of Kurdistan, talented diplomat, elected governor of the emblematic Kurdish city of Kirkuk from 2011 to 2017, he was known and loved throughout Kurdistan as well as in the Kurdish diaspora.
His untimely death is a great loss for his family, for the Kurdish Institute and his friends and for the Kurdish cause as a whole.
Born in 1949 in Kirkuk where he attended primary and secondary school, he was admitted to the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Mosul. During his university years he was active in the Kurdistan Students’ Union, of which he became one of the leaders. Upon graduating as a doctor in 1972 he joined the ranks of the Kurdish resistance of General Mustafa Barzani. After the collapse of the latter following the Algiers Agreement of 5 March 1975 signed between the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein at the Kurds’ expense, he went into exile in the United States. There he completed his studies in neurosurgery at Georgetown University in Washington. Parallel to his professional activity at the hospital of the prestigious Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and in private practice, he continued to campaign for the Kurdish cause by co-founding the Kurdish National Congress of North America, and in 1989 he joined the Kurdish Institute of Paris of which he became vice-president. He played an important role in the preparation of the International Conference on the situation of the Kurds after the Gulf War, co-organised by the Kurdish Institute of Paris and the Foreign Relations Committee of the American Senate on 27 February 1991 in the Senate with the participation of several American senators, including Edward Kennedy, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, Iraqi Kurdish leaders and Madame Mitterrand. This conference played a major role in informing and raising the awareness of the American Congress on the Kurdish question; its participants mobilised during the Kurdish exodus in the spring of 1991 to obtain the commitment of the American administration in favour of the creation of a Safe Haven, a protection zone proposed by France, a no-fly zone decided in June 1991 by the UN Security Council which allowed the emergence and recognition of the present Autonomous Region of Kurdistan. In 1994, Dr. Karim was, together with Kendal Nezan and Fuad Hussein, the current Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iraq, a member of the Kurdish Institute delegation sent to Kurdistan to convince the leaders of the two Iraqi Kurdish parties in conflict (KDP and PUK) to come and take part in the peace talks organised in France, at the Château de Rambouillet, under the high patronage of President Mitterrand, in order to settle their differences in a negotiated and peaceful manner. In 1996, Dr. Karim founded the Kurdish Institute in Washington, D.C., which specialises in informing and sensitising Congress and the American media.
Personal physician to General Barzani until his death in exile in Washington in March 1979, then to the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, who later became Iraq’s first elected president, Dr. Karim provided care and advice to Kurdish resistance fighters from all parts of Kurdistan passing through Washington. He also promoted their contacts with Congress, NGOs and the American media. He was in fact the volunteer ambassador of Kurdistan in Washington.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, at the request of his friend Jalal Talabani, he became involved in Kurdish and Iraqi political life. First elected as a member of the Iraqi Parliament in 2010, he then constituted and led a list called “Kurdistan Alliance” which won the provincial elections in Kirkuk in 2011. Elected governor of his native city, he has, in a difficult political and security context, organised basic services for all the inhabitants of this predominantly Kurdish city with large Turkmen, Arab and Christian communities, without discrimination. Highly appreciated by his constituents, he remained governor of Kirkuk until October 2017, when Iraqi troops and militias occupied the city. He was illegally dismissed by the Baghdad government for having organised the referendum on self-determination for Kurdistan during which the majority of the inhabitants of this province voted in favour of independence. He then withdrew to Erbil where his team continued to closely monitor developments in Kirkuk.
A year ago he had gone to Washington for treatment. He was operated in September in his Johns Hopkins hospital by his colleagues and died peacefully, surrounded by his wife Zozan and his four children, on Friday 30 October at about 11 pm, Washington time.
In accordance with his last wishes, his body was repatriated to Kurdistan where, after a national tribute ceremony in the presence of President Nechirvan Barzani, ministers, Dr Fuad Hussein, Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the President of the Kurdish Institute in Paris, Representatives of all the Kurdish political parties and many personalities, his body covered with the flag of Kurdistan, was buried in the cemetery of Pirmam (Massif Salahaddine) near Erbil while waiting to be one day buried in his liberated hometown of Kirkuk.
Cases of racist crimes against Kurds, and particularly, serious abuses by the military, are increasing in Turkey. On 30th September, the “pro-Kurdish” HDP party issued a statement on the torture of two villagers from Van who had been thrown from a military helicopter, following the death in hospital the same day of one of them, Servet Turgut, 55 years old, father of 7 children.
Turgut and another villager, Osman Şiban, a 50-year-old father of 8 children, were in good health on 11th September when they were arrested by the military after nearby fighting between soldiers and the PKK resulted in the deaths of three soldiers and a guerrilla member. The hospitalisation report from Şiban mentions that he was “taken to the emergency ward after falling out of a helicopter” two hours after his arrest. However, their families were only informed on 13th September that they were in intensive care, without further explanation. When an HDP delegation arrived to investigate the case, Şiban, who had been released, was taken back to the military hospital. Hundreds of policemen surrounded the delegation that had just visited him, preventing any statement to the press... In its statement, the HDP points to the regular occurrence of these abuses, five since last June. Far from reflecting individual indiscipline, these incidents are part of a deliberate racist policy of the Turkish State towards Kurds; they also aim to convey the message that the security forces can kill Kurds wherever and whenever they want and with impunity. The HDP also noted the lack of reaction from the Human Rights Inquiry Commission of the Turkish Parliament. On October 2nd, the human rights NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the Turkish authorities to open an investigation.
The authorities have been particularly vindictive towards all those involved in the denunciation of this unacceptable exaction. On 21stSeptember, the Van governor’s office claimed that Turgut had fallen into the mountains while resisting arrest, without mentioning Şiban, and accused the two men of aiding the PKK. The families of the victims said they had been threatened with death if they spoke, and a court banned the dissemination of any information about the incident. Police attacked Turgut’s wake in Van, preventing residents, journalists and members of the HDP (including MP Hüda Kaya) from attending. On 6th October, four journalists from the agencies Mezopotamya (Adnan Bilen and Cemil Uğur) and Jin News (Şehriban Abi and Nazan Sala) were detained in night raids and police confiscated their cameras and memory cards. Mezopotamya’s website and several others mentioning the case were censored (Ahval). Although on the 7th, AKP MP Cengiz Aydoğdu admitted when responding to journalists in parliament that “something had happened” and indicated that the prosecutor had opened an investigation (Duvar), two days later, the four imprisoned journalists were charged with terrorism for “reporting social events against the interests of the state” and covering the incident “in favour of the armed terrorist organisation PKK/KCK” (Ahval).
This case is far from being the only exaction committed recently by the Turkish military. On the 16th, several associations demanded in a joint press conference in Istanbul the return to their families of 282 bodies removed by the army from the cemetery of Garzan, in Bitlis, during the curfew imposed on this city in December 2017. The cemetery had been destroyed by bulldozer. The bodies from the desecrated graves were brought to Istanbul to be piled up in mass graves under the pavements of Kilyos Cemetery. They are mostly victims of the clashes of the 1990s, but there are also Rojava fighters who fell from 2014 onwards in the fight against ISIS. The families had not even been informed of their removal, and it is thanks to the searches of the human rights association İHD that they could be located. Then on the 31st, a 63-year-old man, Ali Dereli, was shot dead by the Turkish army during an operation in Awyan, a village near Yüksekova (Hakkari). Relatives of the victim, who had to wait for six hours before being allowed access to the body, said they were gassed by the security forces. They also recalled that Ali’s brother Abdulhalit had also been killed by the Turkish army back in 1983.
Another example of the Turkish state’s anti-Kurdish obsession is the ban on the 15th of the performance of the play Beru, a Kurdish translation of Horn, trumpets... and firecrackers by the famous Italian writer Dario Fo. For the first time in the modern history of Turkey, a play in Kurdish was to be performed by the Istanbul Municipal Theatre, but it was banned at the very last moment: “We were on stage [...] waiting for the spectators, when the ban [...] was notified to us”, actress Ruges Kirici told AFP. Ismail Catakli, spokesman for the interior ministry, denied a ban because of the Kurdish language, speaking of preventing “PKK propaganda”. It seems in this case that it was more the theatre company than Dario Fo’s play, already performed in many languages, that was targeted, but any mention of the Kurds always provokes accusations from the authorities, including in school textbooks! Thus the Turkish Ministry of Education recently triggered a controversy by removing from the 2020 edition of a primary school history textbook many references to the Kurds, especially in the section dealing with the beginning of Islam. The 2019 edition (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1srrbDSHRCVuYQMBEbHRBwUo6Lk0JvmX0/view) explicitly mentioned (p. 183) the first Kurdish companion of the Prophet, Jaban al-Kurdi, while the new one (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1srrbDSHRCVuYQMBEbHRBwUo6Lk0JvmX0/view) brushes the “Kurdish tribes” aside in two lines... In 2019, the general secretary of the MHP (far-right Nationalist Action Party, in power with the AKP), Ismet Buyukataman, had written to the Minister of Education to denounce the “propaganda” according to which the Kurds would have embraced Islam before the Turks... Could this be the reason? (Rûdaw) Turkey has also protested against the “PKK propaganda” of the new history-geography textbook... of the final year of French secondary schools, which devotes a double page to the Kurds under the title: “A People without a State”!
Prisoners too are, quite literally, paying the price of this anti-Kurdish hatred: anyone who writes letters in this language to their relatives is charged by the prison administration up to US$ 50 per page for translation! Some prisons do not deliver the letters, both to families and inmates, if they contain even one sentence in Kurdish (Ahval). On the 25th, the Turkish site Ahval also noted the poor sanitary conditions suffered by many detainees in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the lack of personal protective equipment and sometimes the refusal of the administration to test or isolate suspicious cases.
Besides, Turkey’s increasingly aggressive militaristic foreign policy has worrying consequences internally for other minorities as well. Regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while the HDP, the only Turkish political party that has not supported engagement with Azerbaijan, is accused of treason, Turkey’s 60.000-strong Armenian community feels particularly threatened: nationalist demonstrations are coming near its neighbourhoods and churches to wave the Azerbaijani flag. The Greeks are facing the same provocations. Garo Paylan, HDP deputy of Armenian origin, said he received death threats after his speeches advocating peace. In an interview given on the 15th to the New York Times, he analysed that the regular choice of new “external enemies” by the government, Cyprus, Greece, Armenia... allows it to close more and more the democratic space inside.
The country is also struggling to find justice for past cases, such as the 28 November 2015 assassination of the Diyarbakir president of the Bar, Tahir Elçi, whose trial began on the 21st. Last year, the Diyarbakir Bar Association accused the police officers protecting the lawyer, who was shot dead in the street, on the basis of the conclusions of a British technical analysis firm: Forensic Architecture had concluded that the fatal bullet (which was not found...) could only have been fired by a member of the police force. However, the three police officers involved, who have not even been suspended, are only accused of “causing death by negligence”. They were also not physically present at the hearing, as the court had authorised them to appear by videoconference. The video of the shooting preceding Elçi’s death also “disappeared”, and the prosecutor in charge of the case was replaced several times... When Tahir Elçi’s widow, Türkan Elçi, began to criticise the court, the president threatened to have her expelled. “I waited for five years, you will take two minutes to listen to me”, she replied. One of the lawyers for the plaintiff, Baris Yavuz, said the magistrates obviously wanted “to get rid of the case as fast as possible”. The lawyers called for the current judges to be recused, a request that will be considered by another court. As a result, the trial has been postponed until 3rd March. Human Rights Watch has said it will follow the trial closely, “to see whether it aims to shed light on the circumstances of the murder [...] or to try to exonerate the police at all costs” (AFP)...
At the same time, the ordinary repression continued with its procession of arrests, convictions on fraudulent grounds and denials of justice... On 1st October, the German-Kurdish singer Hozan Canê, detained since June 2018, was released, but with a ban on leaving Turkish territory. Residing in Cologne, Canê had been arrested when she came to Turkey to support the HDP with her songs during the campaign for the presidential and parliamentary elections. She had been sentenced in November 2018 to six years and three months in prison for “membership of a terrorist organisation” on the basis of photos showing her with fighters of the Syrian YPG, taken from a documentary filmed by Canê on the persecution of the Yezidi by ISIS. This conviction was overturned by an appeal court, hence her release pending retrial (AFP). The judge did not come to the hearing scheduled for 4th October and postponed the case until 21stJanuary, so the singer is effectively prevented from returning to Germany. Canê’s daughter Gönül Örs, also arrested on terrorism charges in September 2019 while visiting her mother, is also barred from leaving the country (Kurdistan 24).
After arresting 82 people on 25th September in an anti-Kurdish operation of an unprecedented scale, the Turkish judiciary continued its mass arrests of HDP elected representatives in October as part of the prosecution of participants in the 2014 protests on Kobanê, following an investigation opened… six years ago. Accusing the HDP of “inciting violence”, the authorities are prosecuting its leaders of the time. On 1st October, the co-mayor of Kars Şevin Alaca, who had not been arrested at the same time as her male colleague Ayhan Bilgan, was also arrested. She was replaced on the 3rd by a pro-AKP administrator whose first decision was to dissolve the municipal council. At the same time, a court in Ankara ordered the detention of 17 former and current HDP politicians and activists who had participated in the demonstrations. Three others were released under judicial supervision. Turkish police also raided an HDP office in Germencik, Aydin, arresting several local leaders and confiscating all computers. Human Rights Watch expressed concern on February 2nd that “detaining political figures from a party that won nearly 12% of the vote in the 2018 elections is part of the Turkish government’s policy to criminalise the opposition” (HRW, WKI). At Şırnak, eight people received three months and 15 days in prison for “committing a crime for the benefit of an illegal organisation”: they had attended the funeral of a PKK fighter... in 2008. On the 9th, it was learned that several Kurdish women politicians detained for several years were also being prosecuted in the framework of this “Kobanê investigation” and would be questioned on the 12th by videoconference: Sebahat Tuncel, former co-president of the Democratic Party of Regions (DBP), Gultan Kisanak, former co-mayor of the city of Diyarbakir, Aysel Tuğluk and Gülser Yıldırım, former HDP MPs (RojInfo).
On the same day, it was announced that Turkish prosecutors had launched a new indictment to sentence pro-democracy activist and philanthropist Osman Kavala, already imprisoned for more than three years, to “aggravated life imprisonment” for participation in the July 2016 coup attempt. Also targeted is American academic Henri Barkey, accused of “conspiracy” (Middle East Eye). Both men are accused of espionage and “attempts to overthrow the constitutional order”. On the 26th, HRW and the International Commission of Jurists formally condemned these “bogus accusations”, “politically motivated and devoid of any legal credibility” (Rûdaw). After Kavala’s acquittal in February in the case of the Gezi Park protests, the authorities had found a way to avoid releasing him by immediately re-arresting him for involvement in the coup d’état.
On the 10th, the Ankara police attacked a commemorative gathering of the families of the 103 Kurdish victims of the attack on the railway station of this city in 2015. Eleven participants were imprisoned. The pandemic was, as usual, the pretext for the ban. The government is suspected of having had at least partial knowledge of ISIS’s plans, for both Ankara and Suruç attacks (Ahval).
On the 15th, police arrested six HDP members in Mersin and 22 people in Hakkari and surrounding villages, while a court in Ankara approved the continued imprisonment of former HDP leaders Selahhattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag, who have been left in jail since November 2016. Finally, on the 19th, the former HDP deputy and recently dismissed mayor of Mardin, Ahmet Türk, 74, was imprisoned in the framework of an “anti-terrorist investigation” (Anatolia), and was notified on the 21st that he was banned from leaving the country. At the same time, Emin Irmak, mayor of the Artuklu district of Mardin, was also imprisoned (WKI, Reuters). On the 22nd, the HDP was again hit by four arrests during raids: HDP co-chairs in Diyarbakir Hulya Alokmen Uyanik and Zeyyat Ceylan, and their counterparts in the district of Yenişehir, Remziye Sizici and Kasim Kaya. An “anonymous judicial source” told AFP that PKK banners and documents had been seized ... The same week, parliament forwarded to its judicial committee for consideration requests for the waiver of immunity for 10 new HDP deputies. On the 21st, the police of Kahramanmaraş detained 12 HDP members during house raids. In Antalya, a member of the city council, Nihat Akkaya, received 10 months imprisonment for calling Abdullah Öcalan “Sir” in a speech in 2019. At Doğubayazıt (Ağrı), HDP co-chairs Abdullah Ekelik and Gönül Öztürk were imprisoned. In Siirt, on the 25th, the dismissed mayor Tuncer Bakirhan was sentenced to 10 years, 10 months and 11 days imprisonment for “membership in a terrorist organisation”. Finally, former BDP deputy Ibrahim Binci and HDP assembly member Mesut Bağcık were imprisoned (WKI).
In this context of widespread anti-Kurdish repression, a dozen Kurdish political parties and NGOs met in Diyarbakir on the 24th to discuss the possibilities of establishing a stronger alliance. At the end of the meeting, HDP Co-Chairman Mithat Sancar announced the creation of a permanent “Kurdistan Alliance”, stating in particular: “A democratic transformation in Turkey does not seem to be possible without the contribution of the Kurds, as the experience gained so far shows” (Ahval).
On 6th October, the European Commission noted in the main conclusions of its 2020 report on the situation in Turkey (https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/country_20_1791) that “the situation in the South-East [i.e. the Kurdish provinces of the country] remains of great concern” [...] “The replacement of 47 democratically elected HDP mayors by centrally appointed representatives in the South-East calls into question the results of the democratic process of the local elections of 31 March 2019. Arrests and dismissals of elected municipal officials and party representatives have continued, seriously jeopardising local democracy”. Furthermore, the same report further notes “serious setbacks” in the functioning of the judicial system, giving rise to “concerns” about its “systemic lack of independence”, and above all the “continued” deterioration of “human and fundamental rights”, “serious setbacks ... in the area of freedom of expression”.
However, the document remains silent on the consequences of these serious democratic shortcomings on Turkey-EU relations ...
October was dominated in Rojava by the permanent Turkish pressure, with new threats of invasion from President Erdoğan, the continuation of exactions by his mercenaries in the Syrian Kurdish territories under Turkish occupation, and recurrent attacks against areas held by the Autonomous Administration of North-East Syria (AANES). As in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Turkish army is not very concerned about civilian lives during its operations: on the 16th in Ain Issa, a child was killed by its artillery...
On 3rd October, the Turkish President said from Hatay that Ankara was ready to launch a new offensive to “clean” northern Syria of Kurdish militias: “The terrorist areas [...] must be cleaned up as promised, or we will come and do it ourselves” (Ahval). Officials of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have criticised both Moscow and Washington for their inaction in the face of continued attacks by his Syrian mercenaries, in violation of the ceasefires agreed under the aegis of both countries in October 2019.
On the 7th, the Turkish army and its Syrian mercenaries again launched attacks against the town of Ain Issa (Raqqa), as well as several nearby villages held by the FDS. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), six pro-Turkish militiamen were killed and five members of the Asayish (Kurdish Security) wounded (Rûdaw, ANHA). On the 8th, as the AANES marked the first anniversary of the Turkish invasion, 73 local human rights organisations, including the SOHR, issued a statement calling on the UN to put pressure on Turkey to stop human rights violations committed by its representatives, including abductions, killings and looting. At the same time, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order extending the presence of U.S. forces in Syria for another year, a decision welcomed by FDS commander Mazloum Abdi after new threatening statements by Turkish President...
On the 13th, Amy Austin Holmes, a researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), basing herself on data collected by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), and on her own observations made last September near the front lines of the Turkish occupied zone, estimated that Turkey, directly or through its Syrian mercenaries, was responsible for more than 800 incidents involving civilians or members of the FDS that occurred after the ceasefires were signed. Holmes was careful to point out that this number did not include violations in Afrin or fighting between different factions of the so-called “Syrian National Army”, often triggered by disagreements over the sharing of loot. She recalls that the ceasefire agreed by Washington provided for the “protection of ethnic and religious minorities”, a clause which she believes is far from being respected. An AFP report published on the 12th confirms that, one year after the Turkish invasion, many displaced civilians have still not been able to return to their homes. An Arab mother interviewed in a camp said that “accusations that her husband worked with the Kurdish authorities [would] make any return very dangerous”.
Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, denounced in September a resurgence of murders, kidnappings, illegal displacements of people and spoliations in the areas occupied by Ankara and its allies, particularly in Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad. But Turkey rejects all the accusations, and on the 13th, at a joint press conference with the Swedish foreign minister, his Turkish counterpart became angry when she “urged” Turkey to withdraw from northern Syria, accusing the European Union of “arrogance”: “Using the word ‘urge’ is arrogant and wrong in diplomacy”, he said. Mevlut Çavuşoğlu’s anger also had another source: Ann Linde had defended the EU’s right to have contacts with “the different groups active in northern Syria”... (AFP) And indeed, a few days later, a delegation from the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, arrived in Rojava on the 17th, met Mazloum Abdi on the 19th to discuss, among other things, military and political support to the homeless in the fight against ISIS and the establishment of “strategic relations”. The head of the Swedish delegation, the special envoy to Syria Per Örneus, expressed his regret for the Turkish invasion of 2019 (Rûdaw)... On 20th October, 68 MEPs reacted in a letter to David Sassoli, President of the Parliament, to the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria published on 14 August 2020. They condemned the Turkish action in very harsh terms: “We demand that the Turkish government stop its political, economic and military support to all groups involved in these systematic human rights violations. We call on the Turkish army and its auxiliary forces to end their illegal occupation of northern Syria and to withdraw from the region”. They also called for the sending of a special delegation to gather more information and start a dialogue with AANES.
On the 22nd, the day after an attack on civilian vehicles in the village of Rihaniyah, near Serê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ain), the SOHR in turn denounced the continuing exactions of pro-Turkish mercenaries in this area as well as their recurrent internal clashes for loot (RojInfo). The following day, the FDS issued a statement denouncing the recent increase in attacks by the Turkish occupation army and its mercenaries against the population near the international road M4, in particular along the Ain Issa line, and announcing that on the 21st, an attempt to infiltrate this city had been repulsed with “10 dead and many wounded among the mercenaries”.
On the 26th, a hundred pro-Turkish jihadists burned the French flag while openly waving the flag of ISIS in the occupied town of Serê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ain) in support of the Turkish president’s attacks against his French counterpart. Mr. Erdoğan’s acquaintance with ISIS is no longer even concealed! The next day, the FDS commander-in-chief, Mazloum Abdi, tweeted his support for Emmanuel Macron, declaring that he “had helped protect ISIS’s Muslims” while Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, “who supports ISIS, far from expressing the opinion of Muslims [...], uses Islam for his personal interests” (Rûdaw, WKI).
Despite the recent progress towards Kurdish unity in Rojava, the tension due to external aggression is still coupled with intra-Kurdish disputes. For example, on the 26th, hundreds of students from Afrin demonstrated in the canton of Shahba, where the Turkish invasion moved them, to protest against the demand of the ENKS (Kurdish National Council of Syria, in the opposition to the AANES) to return to the official education programmes of before the 2011 revolution. The ENKS aims to facilitate ongoing intra-Syrian negotiations, but Kurdish students want to keep the current curriculum, which gives an important place to the Kurdish language, and refuse any return to the textbooks of the Damascus regime.
On the 28th, the Turkish President renewed during a meeting in front of the deputies of his party his threats to launch a new attack against AANES if it did not withdraw its forces from the border. This threat caused many families to flee their homes. The Administration repeats that only its civilian wing remains in place, security being provided by local forces, and accuses Turkey of seeking pretexts for a new invasion.
AANES has also been accusing Russia of engaging in double dealing by seeking to use the Turkish threat to force it to accept the return of the authority of the Damascus regime. Russia, while accusing the United States of pushing the Kurds to separatism, is trying to maintain contacts with the Rojava authorities, while the regime does not hesitate to accuse AANES of separatism. On the ground, the inhabitants of many villages have no confidence in the Russian military, especially as they sometimes patrol in the company of the Turks! In Derbassiyah, for example, the residents managed to force the Russian patrols to leave the area. Nor can the Kurds of Rojava forget how the Russians let the Turks do their will in Afrin... In response to Russian accusations of separatism, the Co-President of the Syrian Democratic Council (CDS, a political emanation of the FDS), Emine Umer, replied that this was “pure propaganda”, adding: “The CDS is a national and democratic project. It does not aim to divide Syria. Our real objective is the unity of Syria”. The project of democratic autonomy is therefore not limited to the Kurds, or even to the north of the country. But it is in total contradiction with the Ba’thist ideology of the Damascus regime which, considering itself to be the winner of the war, only seeks a return to the situation before 2011. On the 20th, Ilham Ahmed declared that an agreement with Damascus would require “almost a miracle”...
On the 27th, tensions rose sharply in Idlib after Russian bombing of a base of Faylaq Al-Cham, a faction enjoying privileged links with Ankara, which caused dozens of deaths. The faction retaliated by attacking the Syrian army. Turkey is cautiously withdrawing its soldiers from the zone while continuing to supply equipment and train its Syrian mercenaries... (Le Monde)
At the same time, the President of the Syrian Democratic Council, Ilham Ahmed, announced on the 5th October the release of 25.000 Syrian women and children detained in the Al-Hol IDP camp, including relatives of ISIS members. Nearly 70.000 people are surviving there in alarming conditions, and the coronavirus has been present since August. Several releases have already taken place in recent months after mediations with tribal leaders (AFP). Ilham Ahmed said in a tweet that this measure concerned only “women who do not present any danger”, often those who arrived before the fall of the “Caliphate” and who were already in the process of deradicalisation (La Croix). On the 10th, AANES proclaimed a new amnesty, the second in five months after the May 17th one. It provides for a reduction of the sentence to twenty years for prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment, but excludes those accused of “treason, espionage, crimes of honour, sexual abuse, and the trade or consumption of drugs”, as well as the military cadres of ISIS (Rûdaw). On 15th October, 631 prisoners linked to ISIS were released after serving half of their sentences. Again, these releases were the result of discussions with tribal leaders. Emine Umer, co-president of the CDS, said that all those released “had not committed criminal acts” (AFP).
On the 28th, a study conducted by two researchers from the Egmont Institute in Brussels estimated that between 610 and 680 children of European jihadists from 11 countries, about a third of whom were French, were still being held with their mothers in camps in North-eastern Syria under Kurdish control. The authors deplore the “inaction” of the governments concerned (AFP).
Finally, Rojava continues to fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Local medical sources, including some linked to the SOHR, are sounding the alarm about an increasingly worrying spread in a region where the health system has been severely degraded by the conflict and which, since the closure of the main crossing points, hardly benefits from any external aid. According to SOHR sources, more than 3.300 cases have been detected in Kobane, where many more civilians are showing symptoms. The same sources report a number of cases reaching 9.200 in the cities and regions of Hassakah, Deir Ezzor and Raqqa. On the 23rd, the number of confirmed cases of infection in AANES territory exceeded 12.500, of which 510 died. However, the AANES does not have the means that would allow it to test all symptomatic patients on a massive scale, which prevents a clear picture of the epidemic.
The Kurdistan Region found itself projected into the very heart of the conflict between Iran and the United States on Iraqi soil when six rockets launched from the Bartela district in Mosul province fell on the evening of 30 September near the bases of the International Anti-ISIS Coalition near Erbil airport. The attack, which fortunately caused no casualties, came from a district controlled since October 2019 by pro-Iranian militias. It was most likely in response to recent US statements that the US embassy in Iraq could be moved to the capital of Kurdistan if the Iraqi government failed to stop the strikes targeting US interests in the country. The Presidency of the Kurdistan Region issued a communiqué on 1st October characterising it as “an act of aggression against the people of the Kurdistan Region and its allies in the war on terror” and calling for unity of action between “the Kurdistan Region and Iraq, the peshmergas, the Iraqi army and the Popular Mobilisation Forces (Hashd al-Shaabi) [...] to prevent all acts of sabotage perpetrated by groups of saboteurs”. The communiqué ends with an expression of support for Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi.
The Americans are far from alone in their concern about the security situation: on 30th September, diplomats from 28 countries met with the Prime Minister and issued a joint statement expressing their “deep concern about the increasing number and sophistication of attacks on diplomatic missions” in the country. In the face of mounting international pressure, the Iraqi government announced that the commander in charge of protecting the Green Zone, where the embassies are located, had been dismissed and that 19 security officials in charge of the areas from which the rockets originated had been arrested. It remains to be seen whether these measures will be sufficient to stop the shots – and whether they will restore the confidence of foreign diplomats...
The Americans have also suggested to the Kurdish leaders that they could keep the consulate in Erbil open, if diplomatic relations between Washington and Baghdad can then be maintained, and that Baghdad agrees... (Rûdaw) But a closure of the American embassy in Baghdad would undoubtedly deal a severe blow to Iraq’s international status, especially since it could provoke further departures...
At the same time, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) counter-terrorism department specifically accused Hashd al-Shaabi of being responsible for the rocket attacks (Reuters), while former Iraqi Foreign Minister and KDP leader Hoshyar Zebari said that “the new government’s primary mission [was] to clear the Green Zone of this militia presence”, described as an ‘outlaw force’. Although Zebari later apologised, these statements provoked the anger of the pro-Iranians. Considering his apology as “late”, several hundreds of them on the 17th stormed and burned the KDP headquarters in central Baghdad, also burning the Kurdish flag. In the evening, the Iraqi Prime Minister called an emergency meeting of the National Security Council, denounced the attack and announced “15 arrests” and the opening of an investigation to determine whether the security forces had failed in their mission to protect the KDP headquarters (AFP).
At the same time, both Iraq and Kurdistan have continued to face the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shown no signs of abating. On 1stOctober, the Iraqi Ministry of Health announced more than 4.400 new cases and 50 deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing the death toll to 9.200 since the beginning of the epidemic. On the same day, Kurdistan announced 684 new cases and 21 deaths, for a total of more than 48.000 cases and 1.770 deaths since the start of the pandemic in March. On the 15th, Kurdistan broke a sad record by announcing 974 new cases in 24 hours, for a total of 59.251, with 28 deaths, for a total of 2.088 since March. On the 27th, even the figure for the 15th was surpassed with the announcement of 1.597 infections in a single day, with a total of 71.752 cases. The day before, the Kurdish authorities had announced that anyone leaving without a mask would be fined 20.000 dinars (a dozen euros). As of 30th October, there were 1.002 new cases detected and 25 deaths, for respective totals of 75.336 cases and 2.431 deaths... (Kurdistan-24)
The health situation also has a serious economic impact in Kurdistan and in Iraq as a whole. At the beginning of the month, the parliament in Erbil devoted a session to this issue, including the late payment of KRG civil servants, in the presence of Prime Minister Masrour Barzani and Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani. The serious Iraqi budgetary imbalance caused by the pandemic is also having an impact in Kurdistan, as the central government is facing difficulties in paying Kurdistan its share of the national budget. Although the budget was paid in September, there was uncertainty at the beginning of October and in the following months should the Baghdad parliament fail to approve Baghdad’s requests for international loans (WKI). According to the World Bank, the Iraqi economy is one of the most oil-dependent in the world. The KRG has failed to take advantage of the boom years from 2004 to 2014 to diversify its investments, meaning that the sharp drop in crude oil prices and the Covid-19 pandemic “could lead to economic collapse and a new cycle of violence”, the institution warns. It also denounces, as in the rest of Iraq, the excessive number of civil servant posts allocated to ensure electoral loyalty: 1,2 million for 5 million inhabitants. The KRG is no longer able to pay their salaries: since January, it has only been able to pay them for six months, and was forced in June to cut those exceeding $250 per month. While the foreign debt is accumulating, the fall of the Turkish and Iranian currencies, while the dinar remains pegged to the dollar, is harming the competitiveness of Kurdish companies and farmers on their own soil (AFP).
Unfortunately, the situation is not expected to improve quickly: on the evening of the 30th, the KRG announced in a statement that it had had to suspend its crude oil exports after “terrorists” attacked the pipeline linking Kurdistan to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. The communiqué did not specify whether the explosion took place on its soil or on Turkish soil (Le Monde).
In this difficult economic context, criticism of both the federal government and the KRG is increasing, but it can lead to retaliatory measures. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) drew attention at the end of the month in its 2020 report to the deteriorating situation of the profession in Iraq, a country that it ranked third in the world for impunity concerning murders of press workers. Reporters Without Borders said four journalists and two assistants had been killed in Iraq this year. Journalists have been targeted throughout the country since the start of the protest movement in October 2019, especially those who dare to be critical of neighbouring Iran. Journalists in Kurdistan are also at risk. A cameraman for Kurdistan TV, Arkan Sharifi, was stabbed to death by masked men in the aftermath of the referendum on the independence of the Kurdistan Region in October 2017. Journalist Guhdar Zebari was arrested in Akre and taken to an unknown location after receiving threatening messages, reports CPJ (Rûdaw). This is also what happened to the editor of the monthly Bashur (“South”), Sherwan Sherwani, known for his critical articles, and for which CPJ also expressed concern (AFP).
At the same time, the Kurds of Iraq are still confronted with attempts at Arabisation in the disputed territories. On the 3rd, Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, in his speech to the parliament, once again sounded the alarm about the situation in Kirkuk: “The policy of Arabisation is unfortunately continuing very intensely”, he said, indicating that discussions with Baghdad were ongoing in this regard and announcing the forthcoming sending of a new delegation to the Iraqi capital. One of the sectors under threat is Kurdish-language education. Since the takeover of these territories in 2017 by the federal security forces, many Kurdish families, but also teachers, have preferred to leave for the territories controlled by the KRG, and more recently, delays in the payment of salaries have discouraged teachers. This has led to both a decline in enrolment and a shortage of teachers. For example, in Tuz Khurmatu, 45 km south of Kirkuk, the number of pupils in Kurdish schools has fallen from 8.000 to 6.000, and the number of teachers from 650 to 550 (Rûdaw).
A glimmer of hope in the possibility of reaching an agreement between Erbil and Baghdad on these areas came with the announcement on the 9th of an administrative agreement on the management of the Sinjar (Shingal) district in Nineveh province. Both the Iraqi Prime Minister and the Interior Minister of Kurdistan said they hoped that this normalisation agreement, whose precise content has not been made public, would finally allow the restoration of stability, the launch of reconstruction and the return to their homes of the Yezidi inhabitants of this region. According to a statement by the Office of the KRG Prime Minister, Masrour Barzani, “Both parties have agreed that Shingal will be jointly governed in terms of administration, security and services. This agreement is a start for the implementation of Article 140 of the Constitution”. For his part, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi committed to try to find the 2.880 Yezidis still missing since their abduction by ISIS in 2014 (Rûdaw).
In contrast, new attacks by ISIS jihadists darkened the outlook for these territories at the end of the month. On the 20th in particular, three young Kurds, two brothers and their cousin, were killed near a village in the province of Kirkuk situated between the lines of the pechmerga and the Iraqi military, before their bodies were burned (Kurdistan-24). The following week, the jihadists distributed photos of their attack. In Makhmur, controlled by Iraqi forces, a father and his three sons were killed when an improvised explosive device destroyed their vehicle. On the 26th, the anti-ISIS coalition launched several air strikes in the same district that neutralized four jihadists (WKI).
The last factor of instability in Iraqi Kurdistan is the continuation of operations and air strikes by the Turkish military, sometimes joined by their Iranian counterparts. “Every day, we see drones, so low that you can see them with the naked eye”, Mohammed Hassan, mayor of Qandil, not far from the mountainous PKK sanctuary, told AFP. Drones are playing an increasingly important role, especially since Turkey has acquired the means to manufacture them locally at a much lower cost, such as the Bayraktar TB2, and they cause many civilian casualties. Earlier this month, Turkish strikes caused the evacuation of five new villages near Zakho. On the 11th, the PKK announced the death in September of commander Vahdettin Karay, known under the war name Agit Civyan. He had played an important role in August 2014 to defend the Yezidi attacked by ISIS in Sinjar. According to the guerrilla communiqué, Civyan was killed on 11th September with two other fighters in a rural area of Van province by an air strike at the end of an operation against a Turkish military post in which the Turkish army lost 10 men.
The Kurds have a painful knowledge of how Iran can use state terrorism outside its borders against them: they have not forgotten in particular the assassinations of the leaders of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan of Iran (PDKI), Abdul-Rahman Ghassemlou and Sadiq Sherefqandî, in 1989 in Vienna and 1992 in Berlin respectively, both carried out by “diplomats” from the Islamic Republic. More recently, in 2018, the Revolutionary Guards hit the headquarters of the same PDKI in Koya, in Iraqi Kurdistan, with missiles, causing at least eleven victims and some forty wounded.
Any Iranian opposition force can also be targeted abroad, as was recently recalled on 10th October with the publication of the conclusions of the investigation carried out in Belgium into the attempted attack on a meeting of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an opposition coalition dominated by the People’s Mojahedin. The meeting, which was held on 30th June 2018 in Villepinte, near Paris, was to be hit not by a missile, but by a remote-controlled bomb using acetone peroxide (TATP). The attack was thwarted at the last minute, in Brussels, on the day the bomb was to be transported to France, and Belgian investigators concluded that the device was “the work of a professional”: the Iranian “diplomat” Assadolah Assadi, who had undergone ad hoc training... Officially third secretary at the Vienna embassy, he was above all an agent of “Department 312”, a service of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security classified as a terrorist organisation by the European Union.
Iran, while denying any involvement and citing a “misunderstanding”, has used pressure and “bargaining” to obtain Assadi’s release: the arrest in July 2019 and the sentencing last May of the Franco-Iranian anthropologist Fariba Adelkhah to five years in prison, notably for “colluding to undermine national security”. On 3rd October, she was placed under temporary house arrest in Tehran, under control of an electronic bracelet (Le Monde).
The Villepinte affair, which, given the power of the bomb, could have caused hundreds of deaths, is not the only one to have attracted attention this month. In Toronto, the murder of an Iranian dissident, Mohammad Mehdi Amin Sadeghieh, who was found in his home on the 21st, has led the Iranian dissident community in Canada and police to ask many questions about the possible involvement of a commando of “Greco-Roman experts” – the coded way of designating Iranian hitmen sent to assassinate dissidents around the world. Another Iranian in exile, dentist Hamed Esmaelion, who played an important role in coordinating the families of the victims of the Ukrainian plane shot down over Tehran in January, testified that he had received death threats. According to lawyer Kaveh Shahrooz, who was in contact with Sadeghieh, many members of the Iranian-Canadian community now feel they are in danger. According to US State Department figures, since 1979, the Iranian regime has been responsible for “no less than 360 targeted assassinations in other countries” (Radio Farda).
Iran continued in October to suffer the most serious outbreak of COVID in the Middle East, making the country the epicentre of the region from the outset. The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), which, due to the authorities’ concealment of the gravity of the situation, compiles its own figures from regional data, estimated on the 1st of the month that the virus had caused by 30thSeptember more than 112.800 deaths in 450 cities, including 3.773 in Eastern Azerbaijan and 2.512 in Kermanchah (CNRI). In Tabriz, the head of the cemeteries said that in the last three days, the number of deaths due to coronavirus had been higher than the total number of ordinary deaths (IRNA). On the 26th, Radio Farda, which also does its own calculations, quoted a member of the Iranian Supreme Medical Council, Hossein Gheshlaghi, who said that the number of victims of the epidemic was “three to four times higher than the official figures”. For the record, as of the 24th, the official number of deaths due to the virus was 32.320, which would mean a real number of over 129.000 – even higher than the Mujaheddin’s estimates. What adds to the suspicion is the Health Ministry’s refusal to present separate statistics for each of Iran’s 31 provinces (Radio Farda). As of the 31st, the PMOI estimated a total of more than 138.300 deaths in 462 cities in Iran, including 4.062 in Western Azerbaijan, 2.456 in Kurdistan, 2.973 in Kermanshah and 1.139 in Ilam. On the 28th, the president of the Iranian parliament announced that he too had contracted the virus... (Kurdistan-24)
Despite this heavy health context, the forces of repression have nonetheless continued to target cross-border Kurdish porters, or kolbars, more than 60 of whom, although unarmed, have been murdered since the beginning of the year. On the 2nd, near Baneh, Hewa Zeraai, a 28-year-old kolbar was killed and another seriously injured, while Iranian border guards arrested several others. Two other porters were injured near Sardasht and Nowsud. On the 6th, Iranian border guards seriously injured a Turkish Kurdish porter near Mako, and on the 9th three other kolbars in Hawraman, Nowsud and near Sardasht. On the 13th, a kolbar was killed in a car accident after a pursuit by security forces near Saqqez, and two others were shot near Baneh. On the 14th, Iranian soldiers targeted a civilian vehicle near Kermanshah, killing a 17-year-old man and injuring another passenger. According to the Kurdistan Human Rights Association (KMMK), the vehicle was attacked because it had no licence plates. On the 15th, a porter was injured near Marivan. Finally, another porter was killed on the 17th near Chaldiran when his group was ambushed by border guards. On the 24th, yet another kolbar was wounded near Piranshahr and another, from Baneh, on the 25th near the Iran-Iraq border in Hangazhal. Finally, at the end of the month, the military confiscated in a raid 200 head of cattle in the Hawraman region, injuring, according to the KMMK, two of the owners who were trying to flee (WKI).
Alongside the economic repression targeting kolbars, victims of the government’s policy of economic discrimination but considered as smugglers, the regime has also continued political repression in Iranian Kurdistan.
In Marivan, agents of the Etelaat (intelligence service) arrested two brothers. On the 4th, a Kurdish prisoner from Urmia, deported from Turkey after being refused asylum, sewed his lips together in protest at his imprisonment without trial for ten months. Several people are thus illegally imprisoned in Kurdistan. In Sanandaj, Security Police arrested 3 Kurds for “aiding Kurdish opposition parties”, and the KMMK reported that the office of lawyer and human rights defender Mokhtar Zeraai was closed for failing to display the portrait of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Zeraai had already been arrested several times, including in 2018 for criticising Khamenei. At the same time, a Kamyaran resident, Rostam Ibrahimi, was arrested for “cooperation with a Kurdish opposition party”, and in Zahedan (Kermanshah), a religious student, Husam Abdullah, for “undermining national security”. In Ilam, a Kurdish activist, Khadija Mehdipour, was arrested by Etelaat and charged with “propaganda against the state”. In Tehran, the Kurdish painter Andesha Sadri was arrested on the 6th (WKI).
On the 12th, Amnesty International called the public to question the Iranian authorities about the risk of execution of a Kurdish man from Sanandaj who was only 17 years old when he was arrested in May 2010, Barzan Nasrollahzadeh (https://www.amnesty.fr/personnes/barzan-nasrollahzadeh). Accused of the murder of a Sunni cleric, the young man was tortured to force him to confess, deprived of a lawyer for three years before being convinced of “enmity with God” (moharebeh), which carries the death penalty. The NGO recalls that “as a State Party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Iran is legally bound not to use the death penalty against persons under the age of 18 years at the time of the crime with which they are charged” (Amnesty International, Rûdaw).
The following week, further arrests were made in Sardasht, Bokan, and Oshnavieh (Shno). There were no formal charges, but it is clear that all these people were targeted for their political affiliations. Several human rights organisations have also denounced the illegal detention of many Kurdish activists, including Farshad Fatahi, detained for more than a month, and Khabit Mafakhary, detained for 55 days. In Saqqez, on 21st October, a Kurdish man named Hassan Qadir Nazhad was arrested. In Tehran, on the 23rd, Security Police arrested a Kurdish activist from Ilam, Somaia Kargarian, and confiscated her electronic equipment. On the 29th, 4 prisoners accused of murder were executed in Urmia. The executions took place inside the central prison. According to KHRN (Kurdistan Human Rights Network), they were Yasser Cheshmeh Anvar, Ali Malekzadeh, Zinolabedin Hosseinzadeh and Musa Rahmani. In 2018, Kurds accounted for 28% of those executed in Iran, although they make up only about 15% of the population.
Finally, let us mention the situation of imprisoned lawyer and human rights defender Nasrin Sotoudeh, who is particularly targeted by the vindictiveness of the authorities just for having carried out her work. She went on hunger strike on 11th August to denounce the sanitary conditions of political prisoners in the country, but had to abandon her hunger strike on 26th September due to the deterioration of her health. Urgently hospitalised on 19th September, she was sent back to the sinister Evin prison on 23rd September, a decision that shocked even the prison doctors. On the 13th, her husband, Reza Khandan, gave additional information on his wife’s situation. He said the prison doctors were “shocked” that she was sent back to prison in her condition, and “protested strongly” because during her hospitalisation, serious heart problems had been identified. Khandan also reported that during her hospitalisation from 19th-23rdSeptember, Sotoudeh was left day and night in the vicinity of several female guards who later tested positive to COVID-19. He also said that doctors outside the hospital who examined her tests said they considered her transfer back to prison as “a deliberate attempt to put her life in danger”. On the 20th, Khandan said Sotoudeh had been transferred to Qarchak prison, near Varamin, 30 km south of Tehran, known as one of the most dangerous and inhuman prisons in the country. The prison administration lied to the prisoner, telling her she was being sent to hospital for an angiogram, but instead she was transferred to Qarchak. “The transfer was not announced by the prison authorities, but by Nasrin herself, who was allowed to make a brief phone call to announce the news”, said Khandan (CHRI).