(Dohuk) – An Iraqi Kurdish journalist who had been threatened by security services was abducted and found dead on August 13, 2016. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) should ensure a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into the killing of Wedad Hussein Ali, 28, who was allegedly affiliated with the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Witnesses described his apparent kidnapping by unknown assailants, who claimed to be Kurdish security forces, following repeated interrogations by the KRG’s Asayish political police forces over the past 12 months about his writings critical of Kurdish authorities.
“The KRG should provide serious answers about how it came to be that this journalist was kidnapped and killed in broad daylight, following repeated interrogations by Asayish forces,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “He is one of dozens of journalists in KRG territory who have been killed, beaten, detained, or harassed.”
In 2015, the METRO Center to Defend the Rights of Journalists, a Kurdistan journalism rights advocacy group, documented 145 cases of attacks on journalists that year including arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and unlawful killing. In 2011, following large public protests in the region, journalists faced attacks and threats, including from the security forces. In March 2011, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 20 journalists, who said that security forces and their proxies routinely threatened, arbitrarily arrested, beat, and harassed journalists, and confiscated and destroyed their equipment.
Tariq Hussein Ali, 40, told Human Rights Watch that his brother Wedad was an accredited journalist for the pro-PKK RojNews, and also worked in the cultural office of the Dohuk governorate, part of Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).
Two of Wedad Hussein Ali’s friends told Human Rights Watch that he had spent time in PKK camps two years ago, though not as a fighter. Over the last months, Asayish officers had taken Wedad in for questioning three times about his role supporting the PKK and his work as a journalist.
One of his friends said he saw a text message with a death threat on Wedad’s phone. Wedad told him the threat came from a man who he believed worked for Parastin, intelligence forces for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the governing parties in the region.
Tariq Hussein Ali said that his brother told him in July that the Asayish had detained him and ordered him either to leave the paper or provide intelligence from inside the publication. “Otherwise we will stop you,” his brother said they threatened. Tariq Hussein Ali said his brother said he had been beaten and that his ribs and shoulders were covered in dark bruises and he could not walk for 10 days after the interrogation.
Wedad ignored their threats and continued his work, his brother said, including publishing articles and Facebook posts alleging corruption within the KRG. He also wrote Facebook posts criticizing Kurdistan Democratic Party forces for abandoning the Yezidi community when the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, took over the area where they lived, killing and abducting thousands of Yezidis. Another friend said that the journalist had told him that he was in danger if he stayed in the Dohuk area.
On August 13, at 8:45 a.m., Wedad Hussein Ali dropped another brother, Sardar, 35, at the construction site where he worked near a marketplace in the Malta neighborhood of Dohuk. Sardar Hussein Ali said that 15 minutes later, he saw large crowds gathering and police cars arriving at the marketplace. He saw his brother’s empty car in the middle of the road.
A police officer told him that unidentified men had detained his brother. Another man told him he saw two unmarked cars cut off his brother’s car, and that three men inside had dragged his brother out, hooded him, forced him into one of the cars at gunpoint, and drove off in the direction of the highway. The witness said the men told Wedad they were security forces, arresting him because he had “an accident with children.” The witness said he noted the make and license numbers of both cars.
Sardar Hussein Ali said that police officers took him and the witness to the police station, questioned them and another brother, Darban, who joined them, and promised to view footage from security cameras in the shop the witness had left before the abduction. The witness later posted the details of what he had seen on Facebook, a screenshot of which Human Rights Watch reviewed. The post began with, “After I post this, maybe someone will find my body in the city street.” Four days later the witness took down the post. The Hussein Ali family said that since then his profile has been inactive and they have tried unsuccessfully to contact him.
At about 10:45 a.m., as the brothers were driving home, Darban Hussein Ali said, a policeman he knows called him to say that someone from his family was at the Azadi Hospital in Dohuk. The family went to the hospital and found Wedad’s body in the morgue. He said they asked the investigative judge in the hospital how the body got there and were told that police from Semmel, a city west of Dohuk, found it dumped on the side of the road.
Photographs of Wedad’s body, taken by his family at the morgue, that Human Rights Watch reviewed, show lacerations, abrasions, and contusions of the head, torso, and extremities. The pattern of bruising and lesions suggests they may have been caused by a blunt long cylindrical object, such as a bat or baton, a doctor who reviewed the photos said.
A senior Semmel police officer told Human Rights Watch on August 18 that they were looking into the case but had no update on the progress of the investigation.
At least two other journalists have been murdered in the KRI. Kawa Garmiani, from the town of Kalar, was shot dead on December 5, 2013, after threatening to expose corruption. Garmiani’s lawyer said that in 2014, a court sentenced Twana Khalifa, who was allegedly affiliated with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan political party, to death for Garmiani’s murder, but an appellate court reduced the sentence to life in prison. Soran Mama Hama, a journalist in Kirkuk, was killed on July 21, 2008, after receiving threats about a report he planned to publish on alleged police complicity in the city’s sex work. No one has been arrested for his death.
A number of journalists, including Sherwan Sherwan and Sabah al-Atrushi, are facing prosecution for their reporting. Isa Barzani, a retired fighter for the Kurdish Peshmerga security forces, whose Facebook posts were critical of President Masoud Barzani, was arrested on August 4, 2015, by the Parastin and held for six months, then released and barred from travelling outside the KRI.
The KRG should establish an independent investigation into Wedad Hussein Ali’s death, particularly in light of the implication of Kurdish security forces. Police should immediately release the video showing his kidnapping, as well as the report of the police who allegedly found his body.
“The authorities’ failure to prevent attacks on journalists not only denies them justice, but has a chilling effect on what they can report,” Whitson said. “The authorities should show they are actively and aggressively hunting for the culprits of this crime, and not just promising yet another bottomless investigation.”