(Beirut) – Kurdish security forces on April 13, 2016, blocked roads to prevent Christian Iraqi families from reaching the regional capital, Erbil, to hold a protest. The Christians had planned to demonstrate against what they say is encroachment on their land by Kurds.
Eight Christian Iraqis told Human Rights Watch that in the Nahle Valley and other areas of northern Iraq with significant populations of Assyrians and other Christians, some Kurdish neighbors had encroached on Christian-owned land. They said that although they have property deeds, neither court orders nor recourse to officials succeeded in removing structures that Kurdish neighbors had built on their land.
“A peaceful public protest is an activity that the authorities should protect, not prevent, especially not by prohibiting travel based on their religion,” said Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East.
On April 13, the Asayish, the political police of the Kurdish Regional Government, set up roadblocks at the exit of Nahle Valley, 10 kilometers north of the city of Akkre, and checkpoints throughout the region prevented Christians from reaching Erbil, including those not intending to protest, several Christians said.
Emmanuel Khoshaba, leader of the Assyrian Patriotic Party, told Human Rights Watch that he and fellow Assyrians had intended to peacefully protest on April 13, in front of the Kurdish regional parliament in Erbil. Khoshaba said that the impetus for the protest was the expansion by a Kurd, a few days earlier, of a structure he had previously built on land belonging to Assyrians in the Nahle Valley. Appeals to officials provided no redress, Khoshaba said.
Mikhael Benjamin, head of the non-governmental Nineveh Center for Research and Development, in the Nahle Valley, said that the Asayish erected a checkpoint on the morning of April 13 behind the last Christian village and that officers there told him that “no Christian” was allowed out. Benjamin said that taxi drivers and others who needed to leave for work but did not intend to go to the protest, were also blocked.
Peter Odisho, another Assyrian from Nahle Valley, told Human Rights Watch that he wanted to go to the protest but that the Asayish roadblock prevented him. Odisho confirmed that no Christians were allowed past the roadblock. Shmael Nanno said Asayish forces prevented him and members of other Assyrian families from leaving Nahle Valley to make their way to Erbil for the protest.
Kurdish authorities also prevented Christians from other areas from reaching Erbil. Evelyn Anouya, a former representative of the Assyrian minority in the Nineveh provincial council, told Human Rights Watch that she had cancelled her plan to go from Dohuk to attend the protest when she learned that all checkpoints into Erbil had orders not to allow Christians through.
William Benjamin, who was in Erbil at the time, said that an Assyrian acquaintance was trying to drive from Dohuk to Erbil airport to catch a flight that morning, but that Asayish at the main Erbil checkpoint kept him for four hours under orders not to allow Christians into Erbil.
Paul Malik Khoshaba, a village elder from Nahle Valley, told Human Rights Watch that he had calls from Christians who were stopped as they traveled from Kirkuk to Erbil, based on their religion, as well as from other Christians elsewhere in the region who said they were stopped as they tried to reach Erbil.
Emmanuel Khoshaba said that the Christians from the Ainkawa neighborhood of Erbil, where he was at the time, also received messages from officials telling them not to go to the protest, although there were no roadblocks. Nevertheless, a few Christians were able to protest in front of parliament. Galeta Shaba, a Christian politician, handed a letter addressed to President Masoud Barzani with a set of demands to Jafar Aminki, the deputy speaker of parliament, asking for resolution of the encroachments within 72 hours. Wahida Yaqu Hormuz, a member of the Kurdish parliament from Zakho and head of the Chaldean, Assyrian, and Syriac bloc, told Human Rights Watch that in 2010 the Kurdish Regional Government’s Council of Ministers had promised to look into the matter of encroachment on Assyrian land and compensation for the damaged parties, but that nothing had happened.
The spark that caused the Christians’ anger, they said was yet another encroachment on their land, despite police orders to vacate existing encroachments.
Benjamin said that a Kurd from a neighboring village in Nahle Valley had started building a house on communal agricultural land belonging to the Assyrian villages of Hizani, Zule, and Upper and Lower Khalilani. Benjamin and fellow villagers protested to the governor, agricultural department, and the police, and the police ordered the Kurdish neighbor to stop, Benjamin said. However, the Kurdish neighbor, who works for a senior leader of the president’s clan, continued building his house, four Assyrians said, adding a roof in the middle of the night in early April.
A village elder, Paul Khoshaba, said that there had been 42 encroachments by Kurds on Assyrian land in the valley, and that promises by President Barzani made to him three years ago to remove them had not been kept.
William Benjamin, an Assyrian student in Erbil, said that over 50 cases of Kurdish encroachment on Assyrian land had been registered in his native town of Sarsink, adding that despite promises in 2001 by the highest Kurdish authorities to solve the problem in Sarsink, no action was taken.
In the April 13 letter to President Barzani, representatives of the Assyrian National Party, the Democratic House of Two Rivers Party, the Warka Democratic List, the National Federation of the Two Rivers, and the Sons of the Two Rivers Entity, all Christian political groups, wrote that “the file of encroachments taking place on the villages and lands of our people in all of the governorates of Dohuk and Erbil is becoming larger day by day.”
Human Rights Watch obtained official documents dating to 1992 and 1994 ordering an end to Kurdish encroachments on Christian land in Kashkawa and Rabitki, two villages in Nahle Valley. Paul Khashaba, Shmael Nanno and Mikhael Benjamin said those encroachments continue.
In a 2009 report on “The status of Christians in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq,” the Kurdish Regional Government stated that it “has never had a policy of taking lands or properties of Christians, and believes that land disputes between individuals must be resolved through the courts of law.”
The report says that Nimrud Baito, tourism minister and leader of the Assyrian Patriotic Party at the time, had strongly denied that there was politically motivated Kurdish appropriation of Christian land, though he acknowledges some “encroachments and crimes, just like anywhere else.”
Both Baito, in this report, and Hormuz, the parliament member who spoke to Human Rights Watch, referred to Fishkhabor, a village on the border with Syria, as a successful case of the regional government returning Assyrian lands to their original owners by what both referred to as a special committee in Dohuk tasked with such land disputes. Hormuz said the committee’s work was not successful in other areas, however.
Baito did not return requests for comment. Dr. Dindar Zebari, the deputy director of the regional government’s Foreign Relations Department, said that Mazin Sa’id, the mayor of Akkre, had received a delegation of Christians and ordered the Kurdish party to stop the infraction and to stay away from these Christian villages in Nahle Valley. Dr. Zebari said that the case was now on the desk of the interior minister, that a committee of the Dohuk provincial council and the Agriculture Ministry was following up the issue, and that the outcome of this individual case would be a matter for the courts.
Regarding the blocking of protests, Dr. Zebari said that the Kurdish Region in Iraq was in a critical security situation. He said that the mayor of Akkre had advised the Christian protesters to await official action before deciding to demonstrate, and that a single case did not warrant a demonstration in the capital, Erbil, with its sensitive security situation.
Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iraq is a party, guarantees the right to freedom of assembly, and Article 26 prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to own property and that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of it. Article 2 of the Covenant guarantees the right to a remedy.
Article 14 of Iraq’s constitution guarantees equality before the law without discrimination based on religion. President Barzani, in May 2015, signed the Law on Protecting the Rights of Components [of Society] in Kurdistan – Iraq, or the minority rights law. Paragraph 5 of Article 3 provides full equality to all minorities in ending encroachments on their traditional areas, lifting them and returning the status quo ante.