Kurdish media reported that starting on March 3, after clashes in Sinjar began, the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party's (PYD) security forces in northern Syria began detaining over 40 members of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), a party affiliated with the KRG’s President Masoud Barzani. These arrests began one day before the planned Erbil protest.
Local media reported that on March 6, the Director General of Erbil Police, Abdulkhaliq Talaat, stated that the protesters “were arrested by a court order,” and would be released based on a court decision. He did not elaborate on the reasons for the arrests. No media coverage of the arrests alleged any use of violence or other acts that disrupted the peace.
“KRG authorities appear to be detaining protesters for no good reason,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “They are also using threats and retaliation to discourage future protests, undermining freedom of expression and assembly in the Kurdish region.”
On March 4 at about 2 p.m., several dozen unarmed protesters attempted to gather near Sami Abdulrahman Park in western Erbil to peacefully protest against recent clashes between the Kurdistan Region of Iraq's Rojava Peshmerga and PKK-affiliated Shingal Resistance Units (Yekîneyên Berxwedana Şingal, or YBŞ) in Sinjar, three protesters told Human Rights Watch. They had posted the event on Facebook.
One protester said he was about 300 meters away, walking to the demonstration site where a handful of people had already gathered, just before 2 p.m., when a group of local police stopped him and said he should not join the demonstration. He said that he ignored them and kept walking but that when he was about 50 meters from the demonstration, they stopped him again, demanded his identity card, and told him to board a nearby bus without telling him why. He said that 10 other protesters whom he recognized and two armed police guards were on the bus.
Swara Hassan, a journalist for the pro-PKK RojNews, said that at 2 p.m. he and two local activists parked their car about 500 meters from the demonstration. They headed to the protest, which Hassan said he was planning to cover for RojNews, when a protester who was leaving the area, warned them that people were being arrested. Hassan said he and the two activists decided to leave but that as they headed for their car, an officer ordered them into the bus.
The police took them to Erbil central police station, and held them with nine others. At about 3:30 p.m., he said, guards moved him and another protester into another room holding eight female detainees. He said that two told him they were children, ages 13 and 15.
Another protester, Muhammad Kiyani, director of the Leadership Committee of the People’s Democracy Front, a minority political party, and former member of parliament with the Change Movement (Gorran), said that he was one of the first protesters to arrive, at about 1:50 p.m., and that many Asayish officers of the Kurdish security forces and police were already there. He said that he saw a police officer slap and push one woman to the ground after she ignored an order to leave. Then an Asayish officer ordered him to get into one of their vehicles, which held another protester, without giving any reason. Kiyani said he was taken to the central police station, where he was held with the other men.
The three protestors interviewed said that all those they saw at or near the protest were unarmed, including those detained. The police released the 23 protesters, including the eight women and girls, between 10 and 11 p.m. Hassan and Kiyani said they were transferred with seven others to the police pretrial detention facility, where each was placed in a separate cell that was already holding other detainees.
Kiyani said he and another protester were released on March 6 without charge. He was never questioned, brought before a judge, or allowed to contact his family or a lawyer, Kiyani said. Before he left, guards took him before Talaat, who warned that he risked being detained if he participated in further protests.
On March 7, Hassan said police took him and the remaining six other detained protesters to the Bakhtiari neighborhood police station for individual interrogations. Hassan said officers asked him why he wanted to participate in the protest. Then they brought him and the others before an investigative judge in Erbil court, where they were asked the same questions. After the hearings, a police officer told Hassan that the judge had ordered the release of all except one of the protesters, without saying why. The police returned them to the central station, and released him the next day, but not the five others allegedly ordered to be released. The six protestors still being held are Turkish and Syrian nationals.
While in detention, Hassan was not allowed to contact anyone or have access to a lawyer. Before he was released, Hassan, an Iraqi, said a guard took him to see Talaat, who told him that he was no longer allowed to live in Erbil, providing no reason or paperwork. Hassan has left the city.
Erbil authorities have arbitrarily banned workers from nongovernmental groups and even the Kurdistan Region’s parliament speaker, Yusuf Mohammed, a member of the Gorran party, from entering Erbil.
Security forces have an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said. While the organizers of the protest on March 4 had not sought permission, as local law requires, international law protects the right to peaceful assembly without restrictions, except in very limited circumstances. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association has stated that freedom is to be considered the rule and its restriction the exception. He has also said that protest organizers should not be required to get authorization from the state authorities, but at most be required to give notification in advance, as long as such rules are straightforward and necessary to preserve national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Law no.11/2010 For the Organization of Demonstrations in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq states that all protests require advance permission from the Ministry of Interior or in some cases other local authorities. Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Iraq ratified in 1971, states that “the right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized,” and that “no restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and that are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
Iraq’s Criminal Procedural Code (no. 23/1971) states that all detainees must be brought before an investigative judge within 24 hours of their detention.
The three protesters who are closely following the cases of those still detained said they had not been able to obtain any information about them, including whether they had been charged.
“If the only crime these men are being charged with is participation in an unregistered protest, authorities should drop all charges and release them immediately,” Fakih said.