(Beirut) – Kurdish authorities should immediately release Esa Barzani, who they appear to be detaining solely due to his peaceful criticism of the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani. Agents for the KDP’s intelligence branch, Parastin, detained Esa Barzani on August 4, 2015, after he posted pictures in support for rival Kurdish leaders Abdullah Öcalan and Jalal Talabani. Intelligence agents told a member of Barzani’s family that he was being detained due to his criticism of the KDP and the family of President Barzani.
“The Kurdish authorities have long claimed to tolerate criticism, but now the ruling party’s intelligence service is stamping on peaceful dissent,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director.
Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, is serving a life sentence in a Turkish prison. Talabani, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and former president of Iraq, has been recovering from a serious stroke since December 2012.
Sherwan Sherwani, a friend of Esa Barzani’s and editor of the dissident political magazine Bashour, told Human Rights Watch that Barzani informed him in July 2015 that intelligence officials had warned him against criticizing the KDP. Should his phones be switched off, he told Sherwani, that would be a sign intelligence officials had taken him into custody.
On August 5, when Sherwani could no longer reach Barzani, he called his friend’s family, who said that Kurdish intelligence officials had come to their house, searched it, and confiscated documents and Barzani’s laptop. A family member told Human Rights Watch that the officials confirmed they had arrested Barzani earlier. The family member said that intelligence agents told him the reason for Barzani’s detention was his criticisms of the KDP and the ruling family.
The family member said the agents who searched the house identified themselves as belonging to the Parastin. Masrour Barzani, the president’s son, heads the Parastin. On September 9, Esa Barzani’s family member told Human Rights Watch that the Parastin were holding Barzani in the town of Massif, close to the president’s residence in Sari Blind.
KRG authorities have not formally charged Esa Barzani and have not allowed any family visits, the family member said. Barzani, who is from the same village as President Barzani and is a distant relative, in June and July posted on Facebook several pictures of Öcalan.
On May 9, Barzani posted a picture of Öcalan and Talabani with the caption: “Kurdistan is bleeding, Kurdistan needs you … only these two leaders can move the streets of all four parts of Kurdistan.” On June 12, Barzani posted a montage of Masoud Barzani, Abdullah Öcalan, and Jalal Talabani over a map entitled “Kurdistan” and with the caption: “All to the support of Kurdistan proper,” meaning a unified country comprising Kurdish-populated areas in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. On July 26, Barzani posted a picture of three men with PKK flags in the background with the caption: “I bow to the steadfastness and courage of the martyrs.”
Barzani’s promotion of Öcalan and the PKK came at a sensitive time. On July 24, the Turkish military began airstrikes against PKK locations in the Qandil mountains in the Kurdish Region of Iraq, which continue to date, prompting President Barzani to call on PKK fighters to leave Iraqi Kurdistan.
Sherwan Sherwani has also faced detention and charges based on his journalistic work. In April 2012, police detained him and prosecutors later charged him with defamation over two articles he published alleging corruption in a municipal administration. On September 9, 2015, a court in Dohuk convicted Sherwani of defamation and fined him US$6,000.
On February 2, 2015, Kurdistan authorities in Dohuk charged Sabah al-Atrushi, a journalist for NRT Satellite Television, under the Counterterrorism Law over comments he made on a television talk show on January 29. Al-Atrushi told Human Rights Watch that he had called for the resignation of a Peshmerga commander, a son of a high official, after Islamic State, also known as ISIS, fighters earlier surprised and killed dozens of the commander’s soldiers. In April, the authorities released al-Atrushi from detention following the accidental death of his young son, and as of this writing authorities had not resumed his case.
“Kurdish official boasts of democratic achievements carry little credence when the government or ruling party detains opponents for their peaceful criticism,” Stork said. “Friends of Iraqi Kurdistan should look with concern at such incidents and press for greater freedom of expression.”