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(Beirut) – Kurdistan Regional Government security forces detained participants in December 2017 protests around Sulaymaniyah and forced them to sign statements promising not to criticize the government.

The detained protesters were held for up to eight days without being taken before a judge and were forced, before being released, to sign commitments not to protest or be critical of the government on social media. The KRG’s Asayish forces also detained three journalists who were covering protests, apparently for their work.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) headquarters in Ranya showing considerable damage following demonstrations from December 19-23, 2017, on the streets of the town.  © 2018 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

“The Kurdistan Regional Government’s response to protests goes far beyond its right to arrest and prosecute people responsible for violence,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The KRG forces’ heavy-handed tactics appear to be an attempt to silence criticism despite the official narrative that the authorities respect citizens’ rights to speech and free assembly.”

On December 18, civil servants and throngs of their supporters protested in at least nine cities and towns in the Sulaymaniyah area over unpaid wages for civil servants. For the last three years, the KRG has paid civil servants only partial salaries every few months instead of full salaries every month, said a group of teachers who helped organize the protests.

The protests continued for five days. Some protesters were violent, with arson attacks on buildings belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the main political party in the Sulaymaniyah area, and some Asayish facilities.

In late January and early February 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed 11 men who had taken part in the protests. All denied that they had been violent, which Human Rights Watch could not verify. Asayish forces had detained each of them after the protests had started, arresting them in their homes, workplaces, or on the street but not near the protests.

Iraq’s Criminal Procedural Code (no. 23/1971) states that all detainees must be brought before an investigative judge within 24 hours, but those interviewed said the Asayish forces had held them for between one and eight days, without bringing charges or taking them before a judge. They were not allowed to contact their families or a lawyer. Nine of the men were forced to sign a commitment that they would not attend any future protests, and six were forced to promise to not post anything critical of the KRG government or encourage protests on social media.

Asayish forces arrested seven of them in the town of Ranya, 90 kilometers northwest of Sulaymaniyah on the afternoon of December 21. They said they were among 32 people the Asayish arrested there, telling the men it was for participating in the protests. They said they were taken to the local Asayish office, where they were forced to sign a statement they were not allowed to read. They were held overnight in crowded cars and moved the next morning to Sulaymaniyah’s Farmanday military base.

The men were held between one and four days. Six said an Asayish officer interviewed them and wrote a statement that included their personal information and a commitment not to take part in any future protests or post any social media statements criticizing the KRG government or encouraging protests. The officer then made each of them sign with their signature and fingerprint, they said.

One man, who was held for three days, said that as an officer pressed him to sign the statement, he insisted on reading it first and asked if he could refuse to sign. He said the officer told him and the other 17 detainees in the room, “If you do not sign, we will not release you.”

Another man said that when he was interviewed, the officer asked him for his Facebook information and opened his page to review its contents before making him sign the form and releasing him.

The men said they were taken back to the Ranya local Asayish station and ordered to sign the same form again before officers returned their personal items and released them on December 24 and 25.

“Of course, we will get in more trouble if we get caught at another protest after we have signed this document,” one of the men said. “But even if I am risking death, I will go out to protest – I am simply asking for respect for my rights and I won’t be able to survive if the situation doesn’t change.”

Human Rights Watch also interviewed two journalists detained for covering similar protests, in the towns of Koy Sanjaq and Halabja. One journalist for a prominent opposition media outlet, who showed Human Rights Watch his court documents, said he was arrested on December 19 in Koy Sanjaq.

He said that as he stood in the street filming the protests at about noon, Asayish forces “came over, took my microphone, camera, and cell phone and held me there for 30 minutes, even though I showed them my press pass. They then gave me my equipment back and I continued working.” He said he left town at 3 p.m. when a friend connected with the Asayish called and told him he was about to be arrested.

“After 15 days I returned home and turned myself in at the Asayish office, where they held me for three days before bringing me before a judge on charges of encouraging people to participate in demonstrations and inciting violence,” he said. “I am currently home on bail but am too scared to go back to work, and too scared to leave home because I am worried for my family and my own security.”

A third journalist for the same outlet said Asayish officers detained him on December 22 in Sulaymaniyah, and that a neighborhood Asayish station forced him to sign a document stating he would leave his job, then released him without charge later that day. “I am still working, but I am worried every single day that they will come for me,” he said.

Human Rights Watch requested a comment from the KRG on its findings and in an email to Human Rights Watch on February 25, Dr. Dindar Zebari, the KRG coordinator for international advocacy, stated:

Sulaymaniyah security forces were extremely lenient and accommodating during the protests. A number of people were temporarily arrested to prevent the spread of violence while also helping to protect others, once the situation became stable they were immediately released without investigations or charges. 

The Asayish was very considerate of the arrestees’ situation, and although they had overlooked many laws being broken, their goal was restoring the peace, preventing violent outbreaks, and ensuring the safety of everyone present during the protesting process. Considering the above violent acts, the arrestees’ would have been tried and sentenced to at least 1-2 years of imprisonment.

He did not respond to queries about Asayish officers forcing individuals to sign away their rights to protest and post on social media, or the fact that they were held for days, after the protests had ended, without access to a lawyer, judge, or contact with their families.

“People in the Kurdistan Region have the same right as anyone anywhere to express their frustrations with the economic or political crisis peacefully,” Fakih said. “It is a sign of oppression when authorities try to force people to sign away their basic rights to protest and criticize.” 

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