Kurdistan Regional Government (KRI) authorities have just hammered another nail into the proverbial coffin of free expression in Iraq, arresting dozens in an effort to prevent a planned protest.
According to a journalist and two teachers from the city of Duhok in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, KRI government employees, including teachers, have not received salaries since February, reportedly because of crashing oil prices and the economic fallout from Covid-19. Delayed salaries have been a persistent issue since 2015, triggering protests that Kurdistan authorities regularly meet with arbitrary arrests.
On May 13, a group of mostly teachers submitted a request to the Dohuk governor’s office to hold a protest on May 16 calling for salaries to be paid. The requirement to request permission to protest – which conflicts with international law’s protection of the right to peaceful assembly – stipulates that if authorities do not respond to the request within 48 hours, permission is automatically granted.
On May 15, the governornate posted a statement on its Facebook page saying it had seen “propaganda and calls for a protest” but that there was no permission for the protest and threatened “legal consequences” if it proceeded. But it did not actually respond to the formal request, a protest organizer said, nor invoke Covid-19-related restrictions as a reason for not granting permission.
On May 16, security forces set up checkpoints and barriers to close off the park designated as the protest location. On May 15 and 16, security forces arrested dozens of protesters – at least two from their homes and many more who turned out on May 16. They also arrested at least eight journalists. Authorities released most of those arrested within five hours, but only after preventing this most recent attempt to peacefully protest.
On May 19, Dr. Dindar Zebari, the regional government's coordinator for international advocacy, acknowledged that the arrests were for “organizing unauthorized demonstrations” and justified the arrests by stating that the protests had violated Covid-19 prevention measures, even though local authorities had lifted almost all movement restrictions and did not mention any gathering restrictions at the time.
Both Zebari and the Dohuk governor in a video stated that political groups were behind the demonstrations. If this accusation were true, so what? Since when was it illegal for protesters to have political leanings? These statements are dangerous in suggesting that in the KRI, you are not allowed to publicly represent your political views if they are different to those of the authorities in the area.
I have sat in over a dozen meetings with KRI officials over the last four years in which they laud their compliance with human rights, always “in contrast to Baghdad.” This most recent incident shows the Kurdistan Region is no bastion of peaceful assembly and free expression.