The demonstrations triggered by the death of Jïna Mahsa Amini on 16 September continued unabated throughout the month of October. For more and more Iranians, despite the denials of the authorities, it is clear that the young Kurdish woman, arrested on the 13th in the streets of Tehran by the “morality police” (Gasht-e Ershad, or “orientation patrol”) for the “incorrect wearing” of her Islamic veil, was killed by the officers. According to the testimonies of other women arrested with her, she was severely beaten and hit on the head in the police van, and fainted on her arrival at the detention centre. She was later transferred to hospital where she died after three days in a coma without regaining consciousness. Protests against her death began immediately after her hasty burial in her home town of Saqqez, in the Kurdistan region of Iran, and quickly spread throughout Iran.
Created very soon after the Islamic Revolution, the “morality police” had been relatively discreet during the presidential term of the moderate Hassan Rouhani. But the ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi, as soon as he came to power, launched a ferocious campaign of repression against women, tightening the law on the Islamic veil (hijab) and encouraging the Gasht-e Ershad to crack down without mercy. The unit then quickly returned to the forefront, distinguishing itself by its brutality. In the months leading up to the murder of Mahsa Amini, incidents multiplied in the major cities: a relatively new development was that women stopped in the streets frequently refused to comply, often being able to count on the support of irritated passers-by (AFP).
The death of Jîna Mahsa Amini acted as a trigger to federate several discontents that had been building up for months, if not years, especially among the youth. The murder came on top of a whole range of causes of anger, including widespread corruption, economic mismanagement, the disastrous management of Covid and increasingly ruthless political repression. This anger was further amplified by the way in which Raisi came to power in an “election” that had been totally locked down by the Supreme Leader and his entourage, with all reformist candidates being prevented from running...
The protest dynamic, increasingly resembling a general uprising, has succeeded in uniting social groups and generations that had never before demonstrated together. The 2009 movement had been marked by political demands from the middle class. The 2019 movement was essentially based on the economic suffering of the poorer classes. But the demonstrations for Jîna Mahsa Amini seem to have brought together many more. Entire families took to the streets. Women, the primary victims in this case, were the first to demonstrate, but they immediately gained the support of men. On the 11th, workers from the Abadan and Kangan oil refineries and the Bouchehr petrochemical plant joined the protests. Videos shared by Persian-language media based outside the country also show workers burning tyres outside the Asalouyeh petrochemical plant in the southeast (EuroNews).
The regime certainly did not expect the death in custody of a young provincial girl to provoke such a national revolt. The issue of women’s clothing, or rather its use by the authorities as a means of social control, has suddenly become the key point of the regime’s ideology on which to focus systemic protest against it... More importantly, fear seemed to be giving way; on 20 September, a student who had taken off her veil in the street told AFP: “We were looking at the policemen in the eyes. It was as if my fear had evaporated when I saw the courage of others”.
Finally, geographically, the movement brings together in an unprecedented way the central and peripheral regions of the country, also highlighting the way in which daily repression has long targeted minority women. Thus, at the beginning of September, two weeks before the death of Jîna Mahsa Amini, demonstrations had already shaken the city of Marivan, in the Kurdistan region of Iran, after a young woman, Şilêr Resul, had died by throwing herself out of a window to escape rape by a pro-regime man. A surprisingly similar situation can be found at the other end of the country, in Baluchistan, another Sunni minority discriminated against by the authorities: at the beginning of the month, after the rape of a 15-year-old girl from the port of Chabahar by the chief of police, the city of Zahedan, capital of the province of Sistan-and-Baluchistan, literally exploded in anger in the face of the repressive forces. Police opened fire on the crowd, killing at least 58 people.
Faced with a global protest, the government tried several manoeuvres to disarm it. To break the unity of the movement, it warned the demonstrators in the Persian regions of the country that they were playing into the hands of Kurdish separatists. But to no avail. To give substance to these statements, the regime tried to draw the Kurdish opposition parties in exile into a military confrontation by launching bloody bombings on their settlements in Iraqi Kurdistan. Again it failed. The demonstrations continued, with the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom”, originally Kurdish (“Jin, jiyan, azadi”), but now translated into Persian (“Zan, zendegi, azadi”).
Faced with the persistence of the demonstrations, the government concentrated its most extreme violence on the minorities and the Kurdish and Baluchi regions. Mirroring its brutality in Zahedan, it has rapidly reinforced its repressive units in Kurdistan, which had already been heavily militarised during decades: “Dozens of videos of the regime’s security forces firing indiscriminately at demonstrations have emerged in recent days, mainly in the Kurdish regions”, writes Kurdish activist Hawzhin Azeez. “The protesters have only stones, their slogans and the ideology of freedom in return. This is a mass popular uprising. For many Iranians, it is a protest. For the Kurds, it is a massacre [...]” (Kurdistan au Féminin).
On the 10th, Reuters reported on videos shared on Twitter showing heavy gunfire and blinding explosions in a neighbourhood of Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan province. According to the human rights organisation Hengaw, a military plane arrived at the city’s airport on the night of 10th/11th, while special forces were brought in by coaches (L’Express). The next day, Hengaw reported that over the previous 3 days, more than 400 people had been injured in Kurdistan by machine gun fire and other violence by the repressive forces, with at least 5 civilians killed and 2 detainees tortured and murdered. The internet was cut off for several hours, presumably in an attempt to cover up the violence. Amnesty International said it was “alarmed by the crackdown on protests in Sanandaj, with reports of security forces using firearms and tear gas indiscriminately, including in homes”. A witness told the newspaper Le Monde that on the 8th, “[...] a man, shot in the head, died at the wheel of his car. Like many others, he was honking his horn in protest. They were firing live ammunition at us. As if we and they don’t belong to the same country”. The wounded are reluctant to go to hospitals, where there are more intelligence agents than doctors. The latter, when they can, provide home care to protect their patients.
On the night of 12th/13th, Hengaw reported that 3 protesters and 4 security forces were killed in Sanandaj, Kermanshah and Mahabad in further demonstrations and clashes between protesters and Bassiji Islamist militia, largely transferred from other provinces to Kurdish areas. According to one witness, “A few days ago, Bassijis from Sanandaj and Baneh refused to obey orders and shoot at people”, but this is not the case in Saqqez, Jîna Mahsa Amini’s home town, where “[the] Bassijis shoot at people, at houses, even if they are not protesters”. He added that the bodies of those killed in the street were sometimes dragged to be hidden in houses. At that time, human rights organisations estimated that 200 people had been killed in the crackdown (Reuters).
Despite the violence of the repression – and perhaps because of it – the protests show no sign of abating. On the contrary, the death of several teenage girls killed in the street has become a rallying cry for further protests. In Marivan, according to another witness, nights have become a time of daily clashes, with Kurdish residents setting fire to the streets to prevent the Bassiji from entering their neighbourhoods, and the Bassiji firing randomly.
The 15th was marked in Tehran by a fire and violent clashes in Evin prison, according to some organised by the authorities to discourage demonstrators, which left 8 people dead and the death toll rising. In Kurdistan, the demonstrations continued. On the 17th, Hengaw announced that 2 demonstrators injured on the 12th in Mahabad in their vehicle were in a coma in the Khomeini hospital in Ourmia. Moreover, an activist from Sanandaj who was interrogated in detention for 2 weeks testified for the Iraqi Kurdish channel Rûdaw about an intensity of repression unseen since the Islamic Revolution. According to the KHRN (Kurdish Human Rights Network), in their detention centre in Sanandaj, the pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) do not hesitate to threaten the young women demonstrators arrested with sexual abuse, and blackmail them with photos found on their own phones: if they find a photo of the young woman with a man, they threaten her with anonymous calls to her family accusing her of illicit sex... While there is little physical violence in detention, the psychological torture is very intense, and the arrests themselves can be very violent, resulting in broken limbs... Another woman testified to her interrogators’ concern about the demonstrations that have taken place in Qorveh and Bijar, Kurdish but Shiite towns that are entering such a movement for the first time: this beginning of unity frightens the authorities, she said (Rûdaw).
On the 28th, new incidents were reported from Zahedan, Baluchistan. Security forces again opened fire on the crowd gathered after Friday prayers, leaving 1 dead and 14 injured. According to Iran Human Rights (IHR), at least 93 people were killed in the violence in the city. The next day, the pasdaran announced the death of a second of their officers, a colonel who died from injuries sustained in “clashes with terrorists”. The same day, several videos verified by AFP circulated on social networks, showing rallies in universities, particularly in Tehran and in the holy city of Mashhad, the second largest in the country. They show demonstrators chanting slogans such as “The city is drowned in blood, but our professors remain silent!”
According to an official report, by that date, more than 1,200 demonstrators had been arrested, while IHR reported on the 30th that at least 92 people had died, the number of victims of the latest clashes in Zahedan being separately estimated at 41 dead... Moreover, Hengaw indicated that since the beginning of the movement, 23 Kurds had been killed by the pasdaran and 1,138 injured. It is likely that in fact the total number of dead and wounded is much higher.
In Iraq, October started off inauspiciously with a huge demonstration in Baghdad on 1st commemorating the 3rd anniversary of the October 2019 anti-power uprising. This led to violent clashes with the police, with tear gas and smoke bombs being thrown, resulting in 28 demonstrators being injured, mainly from suffocation, and 18 injured among riot police. Demonstrations also affected the southern city of Nasiriya. These tensions reflect the powerlessness of the Iraqi political class, too corrupt and immersed in its internal disputes to deal with a catastrophic economic situation which leaves 4 out of 10 young people unemployed, and a changing climate causing droughts and water shortages (AFP).
However, it was this month that the parliament finally managed to elect a new President for the country. After a call from the UN mission in Iraq on the 10th for a “dialogue without preconditions”, and a meeting in Erbil between the Speaker of Parliament, the Sunni Mohammed Al-Halbousi, members of the new pro-Iranian “Coalition for State Administration”, and the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Massoud Barzani, Al-Halbousi announced that the parliament would meet on the 13th to choose the President.
The announced session was able to take place on the day in question, the quorum having been reached with 269 out of 329 MPs present, even if it started two hours late while, in a reflection of the serious tensions still fracturing the country, 9 rockets fired at the “Green Zone” landed not far from the Parliament. These shootings, which were not claimed, left 10 people injured, including 6 members of the security forces and 4 civilians from a nearby neighbourhood.
Since the fall of the Ba’athist regime, the Iraqi President is by tacit agreement chosen from the Kurdish community. The two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), had been opposing each other for months on this issue. Another tacit agreement was that this post traditionally went to the PUK, with the KDP dominating the Kurdistan Region in exchange... This arrangement held until last year, when the KDP challenged it by opposing its own candidate to the outgoing Barham Salih. In a situation exacerbated by the intra-Shiite rivalry between the Sadrists and the pro-Iranian Coordination Framework, the Parliament, unable to reach the two-thirds quorum, had already failed three times to choose a president. However, at the last minute, a Kurdish candidate presented himself on his own initiative: the 78-year-old former Minister of Water Resources Abdel Latif Rashid, a historic leader of the PUK. In a spirit of compromise, the KDP then withdrew its own candidate, Rebar Ahmed, announcing that it would vote for Rashid. Rachid won the second round against Barham Salih by 160 votes (roughly those of the KDP plus the Coordination Framework) to 99.
The election ended a year of political deadlock. Upon taking office, in a decision of unusual speed in Iraq, the new President entrusted the formation of the government to Shiite politician Mohamed Chia Al-Soudani, the candidate of the Coordination Framework. In his inaugural speech, the new Prime Minister promised “economic reforms” to revitalise industry, agriculture and support the private sector, and pledged to provide “job opportunities and housing” for the youth. This is only a first step towards ending the crisis, and the future will depend on Soudani’s ability to deliver. Moqtada Al-Sadr, a major opponent of the Coordination Framework, has announced that he will not participate in the government and appears to remain in observation, perhaps to give Soudani a chance...
A parliamentary session to vote confidence in the government proposed by Mr. Soudani had been scheduled for the 21st, but it had to be postponed at the last moment, as the new Prime Minister “failed to reach an agreement with the political blocs on the appointment of ministers” (AFP). It was only on the 27th that internal disagreements were finally overcome (the portfolio of Minister of Hydrocarbons in particular was bitterly disputed). In the evening, the Parliament voted by a show of hands the confidence to a government of 21 ministers. Twelve portfolios go to Shiites supported by the Coordination Framework, six to Sunnis (including Defence), two to Kurds (including Foreign Affairs) and one to a Christian. Three ministries will be held by women. In his programme, which was also approved by the deputies, Mr Soudani committed himself to organising “early elections within a year”, thus responding, on paper, to one of Sadr’s demands. It should be noted that the 2022 budget has still not been adopted...
On the 28th, a demonstration against the government gathered several hundred people in Nasiriya.
It should be noted that the eternal rivals of the KDP and the PUK have once again clashed, this time over the distribution of the 4 ministerial portfolios allocated to the Kurds: based on its latest electoral results, the KDP demanded 2 ministries, the PUK having an identical demand... Among the 4, 2 sovereign ministries were concerned, that of Foreign Affairs and that of Finance. In the end, the first went to the Kurd Fuad Hussein (KDP), who held the same post in a previous cabinet, and the second, the Ministry of Justice, to the former judge Taif Sami Mohammed, known for her fight against corruption, which had earned her the American International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award.
This political advance took place in a context that was all the more tense as Iran, shaken for the past two weeks by the demonstrations due to the death of Jîna Mahsa Amini, launched on the 1st new strikes against its Kurdish opposition exiled in Iraqi Kurdistan. Drones and artillery fire targeted a Komala party base in Halgurd (Erbil), not far from the Iranian border, without causing any casualties. The previous strikes, on 28 September, had left 17 dead and more than 50 injured. The following week, the Pasdaran again targeted the Kurdish parties of Iran in Iraqi Kurdistan, causing the displacement of 4,500 civilians and the evacuation of 7 villages in the Bradost region. However, on the 9th, they announced the suspension of their strikes, while maintaining the pressure: this cease-fire will continue, they said, if the activities of the “separatist parties” against the Islamic Republic are prevented (Rûdaw).
The central role of the Kurds in the discussions prior to the constitution of the new government and their participation in it does not mean that the tensions on the ground between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Federal Government have disappeared as if by magic. They were clearly evident in Diyala province, where on the 8th the Iraqi military commander warned the peshmerga to leave Khanaqin “within a week”, as a large contingent of pro-Iranian militiamen entered the city. The acting Prime Minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, then suspended the decision and ordered an investigation. The investigation revealed that the source of the friction was an intelligence report by a Turkmen officer falsely claiming that the KRG had brought 300 peshmerga, 700 asayish (Kurdish security) and 250 other Kurdish security personnel into the city. The officer concerned was arrested, but the pro-Iranian militia did not leave the city... On 12 December, another rocket attack by pro-Iranian militias hit the Khor Mor gas field near Qadir Karam (Suleimaniyeh), without causing any damage. This was the fifth such attack since last June.
In the rest of the territories disputed between Baghdad and KRG, Kurds still face systemic discrimination. An example is the recent decision of the Ministry of Education not to take into account below-average grades in the Kurdish language of students: “The Ministry of Education does not consider that the student fails the Kurdish language class if the passing grade is not obtained”, the memorandum reads. This decision applies in all provinces of the country, with the exception of the Kurdistan Region. At the same time, the Department of Education in Khanaqin (Diyala) announced that 25 Kurdish-language schools had closed in 2020-2021 due to a drop in the number of students. Finally, in Kirkuk, the Iraqi army deployed on the 3rd in the streets of Kurdish neighbourhoods without giving any reasons, provoking the anger of residents who were forced to stay at home because of this militarisation of their streets. The Iraqi commander of the area declared on the 12th that it was to ensure the security of the markets so that they would remain open in the evening... On the 28th, after 3 weeks of deployment, the Iraqi military launched house searches in three Kurdish neighbourhoods: Kurdistan, Imam Qasim and Shoreja. However, the security problems are mainly located far away, in the western and southern parts of the province...
On the 23rd, Kirkuk University, whose dean is a member of the pro-Iranian Badr organisation, awarded prizes to girls wearing Shiite religious uniforms at the university in the presence of several religious leaders. The ceremony, held at a time when Iran has been rocked by protests against the government’s oppressive dress code, drew strong protests.
As regards Kirkuk province, there is one piece of news that might give cause for cautious optimism: according to as yet unconfirmed reports circulating in the social media, the KDP and PUK have managed to overcome their differences over the nomination of a candidate for the post of governor of the province. In a manner similar to the resolution of the issue of the presidential candidate, the KDP could support a candidate proposed by the PUK without being a member of that party. Such an agreement, which is long overdue, would put an end to the governance, highly contested by the Kurds, of the interim governor imposed by Baghdad after the 16 October 2017 takeover (WKI). Targeted by several investigations for corruption, Rakan Al-Jabouri is known for having resumed the policy of Arabisation practiced in his time by Saddam Hussein.
While the attacks by ISIS continue in the disputed territories, Baghdad still does not seem ready to implement the agreement allowing the deployment of a joint contingent between the peshmerga and the Iraqi military, the only solution to this serious security problem. The joint unit has indeed been set up, but it has still not received its deployment authorisation, and even the budget to pay the salaries of the peshmerga who have been transferred to it has not been allocated! Earlier this month, they demonstrated in front of the Ministry of Defence to demand their pay, which was supposed to start in January but never materialised, leaving them now 11 months in arrears...
Another factor of instability, Turkey continued its military operations and strikes throughout northern Iraq this month. Reporters Without Borders condemned the shooting of Kurdish feminist journalist and writer Nagihan Akarsel on the 5th, which took place the previous morning outside her home in Suleimaniyeh. Coming from Northern (Turkish) Kurdistan, Akarsel had been living in Southern (Iraqi) Kurdistan for three years and was co-director of the magazine Jineologî. Many components of Kurdish feminist networks condemned this murder, accusing the MIT (Turkish secret service) of having orchestrated it. The suspicion is compounded by the fact that Akarsel has been the 5th victim of a murder of Kurdish dissidents from Turkey in Iraqi Kurdistan for the past year.
Finally, on the 9th, the Kurdish Parliament voted to extend its mandate by one year, thus postponing the regional parliamentary elections originally scheduled for the beginning of the month. The postponement was decided by 80 votes out of 111, with the opposition blocs abstaining. In addition to the tensions affecting the whole country and the region (a bomb killed one person in Erbil on the 6th), one of the reasons for the postponement is the disagreement between the KDP and the PUK on the division of electoral districts.
After his failure to get a Russian or American green light to launch a 4th Turkish invasion of Rojava, President Erdoğan took revenge for his frustration by ordering increased military harassment by the Turkish army and its Islamist or jihadist proxies on the territories controlled by the AANES (Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria) and its Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The AANES has constantly renewed its calls on the United States and Russia to enforce the ceasefire they guaranteed in November 2019 and thus put an end to Turkish attacks, to no avail. For its part, Ankara justifies its attacks by reminding these two countries that they had committed themselves at the time to prevent the presence of the SDF near its border...
As the Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI) reminds us, Erdoğan’s objective remains unchanged: he still seeks to reduce the AANES territories to their easternmost part, or at least to “fragment its territory into non-contiguous enclaves”, thus preventing the development of a permanent Kurdish entity on its southern flank. As an immediate consequence, he could finally create his so-called 30 km deep “security zone” along the border, where he hopes to send back the Syrian refugees who are undermining his popularity in Turkey.
As ISIS raises its head, the Kurdish-dominated Autonomous Administration is more than ever caught between the jihadists and their objective ally – or perhaps their ally, full stop – Mr Erdoğan.
Continued Turkish threats and harassment can only harm the SDF’s ongoing fight against ISIS by diverting much-needed resources away from protection against a possible Turkish attack. As in previous months, daily Turkish strikes and artillery fire have targeted all areas close to the line separating the SDF and Turkish or pro-Turkish forces, from Aleppo province in the west to Jezirah in the far east and the Iraqi border. Ankara’s favourite weapon remains the armed drone. Since the beginning of the year, Turkey has carried out more than 80 attacks of this type. On the 24th, a Turkish drone hit a construction site in the centre of the city of Qamishli, causing a fire. On the 12th, another attack near Ain-Issa had already resulted in the death of 5 SDF members.
However, the scale of Turkish operations in northern Syria remains limited by, in addition to the Russian and US military presences, its ongoing operations in neighbouring Iraq, which mobilise significant military resources. Moreover, Ankara may have encountered an unforeseen problem in its area of occupation of Afrin this month: the development of violent clashes between the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist militia and Syrian groups acting as its supporters. As a result of this violence, the HTS group eventually gained control of the entire area.
The record of the occupation of Afrin was already particularly chilling, characterised by a multitude of war crimes, crimes against humanity and environmental crimes. Researcher and journalist Alexander McKeever was able to document their cartographic aspect using publicly available data on Google Earth. His work shows the extent of deforestation and looting of archaeological sites in the region by Ankara-backed gangs between 2019 and 2021. The report of his work can be found here: https://akmckeever.substack.com/p/google-earth-finally-updates-its?sd=pf.
The month began with fierce fighting between different factions of the pro-Turkish militias in the Afrin area, particularly within the Al-Hamza Division. It seems that this fighting escalated into clashes between the Al-Hamza Division and Al-Jabha Al-Shamiyyah. Then on the 12th, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported clashes between Hayyat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) and several other pro-Turkish groups, including Al-Jabha Al-Shamiyyah, in several rural areas of Afrin, near Jendires and in Ain-Dara.
On the 12th, again according to the SOHR, HTS and the Turkmen-dominated Islamist faction Suleiman Shah entered the city of Afrin without fighting and took control of the Al-Mahmudiyah neighbourhood, taking advantage of the withdrawal of Al-Jabha Al-Shamiyyah towards Azaz. The other factions remained neutral. The HTS, which already controls most of the Idlib area, from its former name Al-Jabha al-Nusra, was publicly affiliated with Al-Qaeda until 2018. Since then, at the request of its Turkish patrons and for image reasons, it has changed its name and no longer publicly claims affiliation with al-Qaeda, but its ideology and bloody practices have not changed and as a result it is still classified by the US as a terrorist organisation. After a short period of ceasefire on the 15th and 16th, the group secured control over the entire city, before hostilities resumed on the 17th. The human rights organisation Afrin Human Rights said that after taking control, the HTS immediately imposed strict Islamist restrictions on the local population, including an Islamic dress code for women.
The chaotic situation continued in the Afrin region until the end of the month with the HTS jihadists taking control of several districts. According to the SOHR, the organisation and the so-called “Syrian National Army” together abducted nearly fifteen civilians, mainly Kurds, in one week. Afrin Human Rights reported that the Turkish military had installed concrete walls between the different factions to prevent further clashes. The HTS and the “Syrian National Army” also confiscated many olive crops belonging to Kurdish farmers as Zakat (Islamic alms). According to the spokesman of the Kurdish-led Manbij Military Council, Sharvan Darwesh, the Turkish-backed HTS has also deployed in six villages north of Manbij, replacing Jabhat al-Shamiya. Darwesh accused Turkey of a “new plan” to use the HTS expansion to strengthen its control in the entire region... (SOHR)
In parallel, international coalition operations against ISIS continued. On the 2nd, the SDF announced the arrest in Al-Sabkah and Raqqa of 2 ISIS members responsible for providing logistical support to fighters, including the distribution of weapons (WKI). On the 7th, Washington announced that its forces had been able to eliminate several leaders of the jihadist group in Syria in a helicopter operation over the previous 24 hours. Interestingly, for the first time since the start of the war in 2011, this operation took place in an enclave held by Syrian regime proxy forces, in a village near the town of Qamishli, itself controlled by the SDF. The US command then said in a second statement that it had killed two leaders of the jihadist group in an air strike in northern Syria, without specifying where exactly. This second attack, according to Centcom, killed “both Abu Hashum al-Umawi [...] and another senior IS official”, without hitting any civilians. According to a villager who witnessed the operation, during it there was an exchange of fire between the US military and pro-regime militias. On the 10th, the SOHR reported that a new attack, this time carried out by drone, had killed a ISIS official who was riding a motorbike near the town of Tal Abyad, which is controlled by Turkish forces and their Syrian auxiliaries (AFP).
On the 13th, a Syrian NGO based in Washington published new information on this group of British-born jihadists who specialised in the capture, torture and execution of Western hostages in Syria, and whose accent had led them to be nicknamed the “Beatles”. The Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) said it had identified seven ISIS detention centres in Syria where at least 18 Western hostages had been held, as well as three other sites where the murdered hostages may have been buried. Two of these sites are located north of Raqqa, at the time the “capital” of the “Caliphate” proclaimed by the organisation. This information could make it possible to find the remains of the victims, who include British journalist John Cantlie, kidnapped in 2012 and whose fate remains unknown, and American journalist James Foley, beheaded in 2014.
With regard to the AANES-run Roj and Al-Hol detention camps, where tens of thousands of relatives of jihadist fighters as well as fighters themselves are still being held, there has been a steady stream of announcements about repatriations of foreign nationals this month. On the 3rd, the Australian (Labor) government’s Department of Home Affairs said its “top priority” was the “protection of Australians”. This statement followed the publication by the Guardian of a report according to which the government planned to repatriate about 20 Australian women and 40 children from Syrian camps, which the spokesperson did not confirm... Such a repatriation would mark a reversal of the line taken by the previous (conservative) government, which had refused to do so for “security” reasons (AFP).
On the 5th, Germany announced the repatriation from Syria of seven more children and four more women, considering that it had settled “almost all known cases” of German families in jihadist prison camps in that country. The returnees were taken into custody upon arrival. According to the German Ministry, a total of 76 minors and 26 women have already been repatriated so far. On the 20th, the AANES authorities handed over 38 mostly orphaned children to a Russian delegation. Transferred from the Al Hol and Roj camps to the regime-controlled Qamishli airport, the children boarded a plane under heavy Russian security surveillance. On the same day, France announced that it had repatriated 15 women and 40 children detained in the Roj camp (AFP), three of whom were immediately detained. On the 24th, AFP announced that 10 of these women, who were the subject of a search warrant, after having been placed in police custody on arrival, had just been remanded in custody. One of them has also been charged with crimes against humanity and genocide, probably because of her involvement in the enslavement of Yezidi women abducted by the jihadist organisation. The state of health of another returnee, who suffered a stroke, was deemed incompatible with her presentation to an investigating judge. Finally, a young woman of 19, taken as a child to the Iraqi-Syrian zone, was not charged, but was taken care of educationally. However, the lawyers expressed their regret and anger that an 18-year-old girl, taken to Syria at the age of 10, was not included in the list of returnees, even though she has been surviving alone in detention for three and a half years, having lost both her parents, including her mother, whom she saw die in Baghouz.
Finally, on the 26th, Canada finally repatriated 2 women and 2 children from Syria.
On 3 October, the Turkish statistical institute announced a galloping inflation rate, exceeding 83% annually. This catastrophic figure has not troubled the Turkish President, who persists with his monetary policy: he has asked the central bank to reduce its key rate below 10% by the end of the year. The bank had just stunned the markets at the end of September with its second rate cut in two months, bringing its key rate down to 12%. It is now expected to cut rates again, under the President’s economic theories that interest rates cause inflation. Just behind this unorthodox theory, the Islamist president’s opposition to interest lending itself is probably hidden...
Producer prices, meanwhile, rose by 4.78% in September, or 151.5% annually. This is partly the impact of energy price increases, electricity 20% and gas 21% in September. This points to an average price increase approaching 100% by the end of the year, which should lead the government to raise revenues in the hope of winning back the votes of citizens in time for the June elections, now 8 months away... (Al-Monitor)
This is because the Turkish president’s decisions are more than ever guided by the issue of the 2023 elections, which he is approaching in an increasingly unfavourable situation. In another attempt to regain popularity, Erdoğan launched in 2022 a major deportation campaign of Syrian refugees, 3.6 million of whom had been on Turkish soil, some since 2011. The NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report on this on the 24th. According to HRW, in violation of international law, while the Turkish President announced last May his intention to resettle 1 million Syrian refugees in the north of the country, the Turkish authorities have between February and July 2022 arrested, detained and arbitrarily deported to Syria hundreds of refugees, the majority of them men and boys. As an NGO official told Al-Monitor, “it now appears that [Turkey] is trying to turn northern Syria into a refugee dumping ground”. This policy reversal comes at the same time as several explicit signs and statements indicating that, in another reversal, the Turkish government is preparing a rapprochement with the regime of Bashar Al-Assad.
Internally, the month was dominated by the Turkish parliament’s adoption on the 13th of a new so-called “anti-disinformation” law, which allows the government to punish with up to three years in prison anyone accused of spreading “false or misleading information”.
This means, of course, that only false and misleading information disseminated by the government itself, or which it approves of, will be able to slip through the net of censorship... Article 29 of the new law, in particular, gives a conveniently broad definition of the information to be banned: it provides for prison sentences of one to three years for “spreading false or misleading information, contrary to the country’s internal and external security and likely to harm public health, disturb public order, or spread fear or panic among the population”... Those who publish information “disclosing state secrets” will also be punished. Apart from journalists, who are obviously the first to be affected, since they can be stripped of their press cards under Article 15 of the new law (Le Monde), it is all Turkish citizens who should be concerned about this new tightening of the screws on what little freedom of information still remains in Turkey. Moreover, the law is not only aimed at the traditional media, newspapers, radio and television, but also at social networks and websites, which will have to provide the courts with the personal information of their users on request if they are accused of spreading false news... HDP deputy Meral Danis Bektas said that “this law is a declaration of war on truth”. Before the vote, the Council of Europe denounced the law as an “obstacle” to the freedom of expression guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (AFP).
In a development also related to press freedom, the trial of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) representative Erol Onderoğlu was again postponed at the request of the defence. The defence requested the exclusion of a juror because of his membership of President Erdoğan’s AKP party, arguing that his presence undermined any prospect of a fair trial. On the 19th, the court suspended the trial while a tribunal decided on the fate of the juror in question. Prosecuted with 2 co-accused for “terrorist propaganda”, Onderoğlu faces more than 14 years in prison. In May 2016, he had participated as a symbolic sign of support in the editorial board of the Kurdish daily Özgur Gundem, together with about 50 other personalities (among them the current president of the Doctors’ Union, Ms Korur Fincancı). All of them were prosecuted on the basis of the articles published at that time, and the newspaper was closed down.
On the 25th, about ten days after the new law came into force, police launched simultaneous raids at dawn in the six provinces of Istanbul, Ankara, Urfa, Diyarbakır, Van and Mardin on the homes of 11 journalists working for the “pro-Kurdish” news agencies Mezopotamya and JinNews (an agency whose journalists are all women). Mezopotamya’s offices in Ankara were also targeted. In both homes and offices, police seized computers, hard drives, other work equipment and magazines (Duvar). According to the Ankara police, the 11 journalists were arrested for their alleged links with Kurdish militants and “disseminating information inciting hatred and hostility” (AFP). The Journalists’ Union of Turkey (TGS), the trade union DISK as well as the HDP have all condemned the arrests and called for the immediate release of those arrested. HDP co-chair Mithat Sancar, denouncing a “plan to silence the opposition press and society”, also referred to the brutality of the police, who “pointed guns at the journalists and handcuffed them hands behind”.
In the 2022 press freedom index published by RSF, Turkey, which ranks 149th out of 180, is described as a country in which “all possible means are used to prevent criticism”. Last September, the Turkish Justice Minister had already refused to answer a written question on the number of journalists imprisoned in the country, stating in his reply that this information is “outside the scope of the right to information” because it “does not concern the public” (Duvar).
The issue of the possible use of chemical weapons by the Turkish army against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan quickly confirmed how freedom of information is in tatters in the country – in this case, the freedom to request or seek information.
On the 18th, the news agency Firat (ANF), close to PKK, published videos showing what it said were the use of such chemical weapons, with two PKK members apparently under the influence of a chemical agent (SCF Stockholm). The Turkish Ministry of Defence strongly rejected these accusations on 20 October as “totally baseless and false” and as “disinformation” by “the terrorist organisation and its allies”. However, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), an organisation representing thousands of doctors and campaigning to prevent armed violence, said in a report that it had found circumstantial evidence of possible violations of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention during a mission there in September.
In particular, in an area vacated by the Turkish military, the IPPNW found containers of hydrochloric acid and bleach, components that could be used to produce chlorine, as well as containers of gas masks that the military may have used to protect themselves. While none of these items constitute definitive proof, their presence warrants further independent investigation. In another piece of circumstantial evidence, IPPNW recalls that Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar openly acknowledged in the Turkish parliament last year the use of tear gas during an operation against the PKK in northern Iraq. Calling the use “a flagrant violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention”, the text said that “the international community should take legal action” (Reuters). It seems difficult to consider the IPPNW as “allies of the terrorist organisation”... In a tweet sent from his cell, former HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş reacted by also calling for an independent investigation “in order to clarify the situation”. “Parliament and the opposition cannot remain silent in the face of these images. Remaining silent is tantamount to condoning the crime”, added Demirtaş, who also recalled that “the use of chemical weapons is a crime against humanity” and therefore “imprescriptible”.
On the same day in Istanbul, thousands of police tried to prevent a press conference of the HDP on this issue. Dozens of HDP members, including its Istanbul co-chair Ferhat Encü, were arrested. Meanwhile, the Ankara Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation against the chairwoman of the Doctors’ Union of Turkey (TTB), Şebnem Korur Fincancı, for “propaganda for a terrorist organisation” and “insulting the Turkish nation, the state of the Republic of Turkey, state institutions and organs”. Having examined the videos concerned, Ms Fincancı had stated in the press at a conference in Germany on the 19th: “Obviously, a toxic chemical gas directly affecting the nervous system was used”, and had in turn called for an independent investigation, which had provoked the anger of the Turkish President.
Ms Fincanci was arrested on the 26th after her return to Turkey, and transferred the next day to a prison in the suburbs of Ankara. Contacted by AFP, she had stressed that she had simply called for a “proper investigation”: “Instead, they opened an investigation against me. This is not surprising. Through me, they are intimidating society”, she commented. Her arrest sparked further protests, joining those denouncing the recent arrests of Kurdish journalists. Arrests took place in Istanbul but also in Diyarbakir. The FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) denounced an “arbitrary detention”.