(Beirut) – The Erbil Appellate Court should immediately set aside the October 7, 2012, conviction of an independent journalist who reported on alleged corruption in the regional government’s security agency. Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) authorities should conduct a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into allegations that the journalist, Karzam Karim, was beaten and tortured in detention and that his lawyer was threatened by security agency officials.
The Second Erbil Criminal Court sentenced Karim, a former employee of the Kurdistan Security Agency (Asayesh) at Erbil International Airport, to two years in prison for violating Law 21 of 2003, which criminalizes any act that “harms state institutions” and “undermines the security and stability of the region.” Karim was charged after the Kurdistan Post, a news agency critical of Kurdish authorities, published articles in which Karim accused security agency authorities of corruption.
“Sending Karzan Karim to prison based on these vaguely worded charges is a threat to any journalist in Kurdistan who writes anything critical of state authorities,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It seems that KRG authorities are more interested in silencing dissent than in upholding the rule of law.”
The conviction appears to be based solely on Karim’s criticism of public officials, which would be a clear violation of his freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. The regional government should amend the laws under which he was convicted so that they clearly permit criticism of state authorities and officials. Karim has already spent 11 months in detention, and has told his family that he was mistreated there.
Karim joined the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate in 2008 and also worked as a security officer at Erbil International Airport’s VIP lounge from 2009 until 2011. He was arrested in November 2011 after publishing five articles critical of the security agency’s administration at the airport, in which he accused authorities of corruption.
Niyaz Abdullah, coordinator for Metro Center, a local press freedom group, told Human Rights Watch that on November 5, 2011, shortly after the articles appeared, Asayesh security forces abducted Karim from his car. A person claiming to be his friend then visited Karim’s family and told them Karim had left Kurdistan and traveled abroad. The family told Abdullah they knew this person to be an Asayesh agent. They heard nothing more of his whereabouts until Karim contacted them from prison three months later.
Karim told his family that he had been held in solitary detention in Asayesh Erbil, a high security prison, and was being transferred to Asayeshi Dishi, a general security prison. Prison authorities allowed the family to visit Karim in Asayeshi Dishi, but Asayesh agents monitored the meeting.
Karim’s brother, Kamran Karim, told Abdullah that Karim had been held in solitary confinement, beaten, and psychologically and physically tortured. Karim’s lawyer, Karim Sofy, told Human Rights Watch that Karim was not provided with a lawyer upon his arrest or during the investigation against him. Sofy was not allowed to see Karim until he had been in detention for nine months.
Human Rights Watch met with the regional government’s Department of Foreign Affairs in August to express concerns about Karim’s ongoing detention. In a letter dated September 6, 2012, the department told Human Rights Watch that Karim was represented by counsel, was “being investigated for publishing sensitive information,” and “was arrested for publishing a series of articles online about the Kurdistan Security Agency and Erbil International Airport.”
The letter revealed that Karim had not been charged until May 2012 after he spent seven months in detention. It said he was charged with violations of article 21 of the penal code, which states that “Anyone who intentionally is involved in any act aimed at harming the security, stability and sovereignty of the institutions of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and is the cause of those harms will face life imprisonment.”
In an August 8 statement on its website, Asayesh, the security agency, denied allegations that Karim’s arrest was “due to his reporting activities on the internet and for posting critical articles about corruption.”
Al-Rafidayn, a local news organization, reported on its website on September 12 that the regional government president, Nechiran Barzani, assured journalists that “the government would ensure Karzan Karim a fair trial.” In their letter to Human Rights Watch, Department of Foreign Affairs authorities gave assurances that his trial would be “open to the public.”
Despite these assurances, Asayesh agents surrounded the court, preventing Karzan’s family and rights groups from entering. At the trial, a high-ranking Asayesh official took Sofy, the lawyer, aside and, he told Human Rights Watch, warned, “You’d better behave, or your destiny will be like that of Zardasht Osman,” referring to a journalist killed in 2010 after his articles critical of regional authorities were posted on the Kurdistan Post’s website. Sofy told Human Rights Watch that the security agency presented no evidence against Karim at the trial. In a statement, Asayesh said that “the court relied on a group of secret documents.”
Article 38 of Iraq's Constitution guarantees, “in a way that does not violate public order and morality,” all means of freedom of expression as well as freedom of the press, printing, advertisement, media, and publication.
International human rights law recognizes freedom of expression as a fundamental human right, essential both to the effective functioning of a democratic society and to individual human dignity. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iraq is party, guarantees individuals the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”
It is well established under international human rights law that politicians and other public figures are subject to, and must tolerate, wider and more intense scrutiny of their conduct than other people. The United Nations’ Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights say that restrictions on freedom of expression "shall not be used to protect the state and its officials from public opinion or criticism." The UN Human Rights Committee, in its definitive interpretation of the ICCPR on freedom of expression, has stated that all public figures are legitimately subject to criticism, and states should not prohibit criticism of public institutions.
“President Barzani’s fair trial assurances ring hollow in light of what we know about this trial,” Stork said. “The charges against Karim and the security agent’s threat to his lawyer reflect a pattern of harassment and intimidation and the failure of the courts to protect people who are threatened.”