Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq to Hold Referendum

By Justin Santabarbara
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East 

KIRKUK, Iraq The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq has elected to hold a non-binding referendum signaling its desire to provincially separate from the central Iraqi regime. The referendum is scheduled to be put to a vote on 25 September. The independence referendum has gained its most support over the last couple of months as Iraq continues its counterterrorism-minded overtaking of provincial and regional governments. Moreover, the referendum is facing much criticism from both the central Iraqi government and the nearby Turks. The central Iraqi government view the measure as an impingement upon their regional control in northern Iraq, especially because the referendum expresses intention to reject central Iraqi control of the security forces and recruit, train and develop an exclusively Kurdish security apparatus. The Turks view the referendum as granting empowerment to the minority Kurdish political parties and forcing terrorists to seek more readily available opportunities in Turkey. The primary opposition again refers to the weakening of Turkey’s counterterrorism apparatus.

Kurdish Regional Government President, Massoud Barzani. Photo Courtesy of Reuters.

The KRG President, Massoud Bazani, has expressed the intention to move forward with the referendum, despite its mass criticism. In speaking to Kurds on 24 September, Barzani told Kurds that the future of the Kurdish people depends upon the passage of the referendum. Barzani continued that the referendum would give the KRG important standing to continue negotiations with the Iraqi government. Barzani concluded that the Kurds currently maintain the most bargaining power since their ousting by the Hussein regime. As momentum continues to build, the passage of the referendum is important because it allows the government to continue to forge relationships with Baghdad, while also building the governmental institutions that are central to success and stability. Barzani, whose tenure began in 2005, urged his commitment to recruit Kurdish forces and receive international aid and training.

Counterterrorism remains at the forefront of both criticism and support for the referendum. While Barzani claims that the ability to recruit and develop independent security forces will allow for a more specialized focus in repelling ISIS fighters from the region. Conversely, the Iraqi central government disagrees in saying that independent security forces will not be well equipped nor prepared to endure the challenges of repelling ISIS fighters. Moreover, the time lapse in acquiring and building the security apparatus lends itself to a void in time, for which terrorists can take advantage, especially when such a schedule is well promulgated. With the referendum looming, its determination can ultimately change the mechanisms with which the Middle East combats ISIS and other regional terrorists. The United States has publicly denounced the referendum, calling it illegitimate.

For more information, please see:

U.S. Department of State – Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s Referendum – 25 September 2017

Aljazeera News – Barzani to Kurds: Vote in Referendum to Secure Future – 24 September 2017

Reuters – Kurds Stick with Independence Vote – 24 September 2017

Aljazeera News – Barzani: Kurd Region Poll to Occur Despite Opposition – 23 September 2017

Turkish government continues journalistic suppression, prosecution of reporters

By: Justin D. Santabarbara
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East 

ISTANBUL, Turkey – On 2 September, Turkish security officials arrested Çagdas Erdogan for allegedly photographing the National Intelligence Agency building. Upon the initial court appearance on 3 September, Turkish officials accused Erdogan of being a member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has long been categorized as a domestic terrorist organization by the Turkish government. Moreover, the charges against Erdogan are tailed toward committing acts of terrorism as a member of the PKK, rather than a photojournalist who took illegal pictures. Moreover, Turkish prosecutors have carefully made the distinction between the charges placed against Erdogan and less severe “mistakes”.

Turkish photojournalist Cagdas Erdogan. Photo courtesy of Twitter @cgd_erd.

The International Committee to Protect Journalists has vocally expressed its displeasure with the investigation. “Photographing a building is not even a crime, much less an act of terrorism,” exclaimed the Committee’s Executive Director, Robert Mahony, at a recent press conference. Additionally, the International Committee to Protect Journalists has launched a number of other initiatives, including appealing to the international human rights community for support and requesting that sanctions be placed against the Turkish government for suppressing members of the media. Further, Erdogan’s extensive photojournalistic coverage of the Kurdish conflict is said to have subjected him to additional scrutiny. Aside from his alleged membership in the PKK, Erdogan is said to have been critical of the Turkish government’s treatment of the Kurdish population and the rejection of their participation in the policymaking process. Erdogan’s work is not only highly critical of the collective Turkish government, but also the security forces’ gross violation of human rights in the Kurdish regions – alleging the involvement of enforced disappearances and torturous detainment of Kurds, regardless of their purported membership in the PKK.

Erdogan’s prosecution marks the continuation of a concerted effort by the Turkish government to suppress journalistic interests under a veil of national security. There is little determinative evidence of a time frame for prosecutions against journalists. For example, Turkish prosecutors just tried thirty journalists after they were held for 414 days after their arrest. Although the trials continue to be pending, past cases have shown that prosecutors often seek lengthy prison terms, despite criticism from the international community.

Though the majority of the cases receive adverse dispositions, there are limited instances in which the international pressures influence a humanitarian release, such as the release of French journalist Loup Bureau on 18 September, who spent seven weeks in Turkey after his arrest for criticism of the Turkish government. Although the future remains uncertain for Erdogan, an intense effort by the international community has shown to have positive effects, when conducted appropriately. It will be important to note how long the Turkish government waits before progressing in the trial.

For more information, please see:

France 24 – French journalist Loup Bureau arrives home after being released from Turkish jail – 18 September 2017

Turkish Minute – 30 Zaman journalists appear in court after 414 day detention – 18 September 2017

British Journal of Photography – Cagdas Erdogan arrested in Istanbul – 14 September 2017

 

Saudi Crown Prince quells dissent behind mask of national security

By: Justin Santabarbara
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – In what appears to be a crackdown on opposition to the regime, Saudi secret police have begun a mass roundup of Sunni clerics and scholars. The detention and prosecution of a suspected thirty authoritative figures is speculated to have been the work of elites working to repel the influence of the Islamic State. Additionally, Reuters reports that many of the clerics and scholars have been connected to Qatar, a state recently alienated by several gulf regimes due to their publicized harsh treatment of migrants. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have long pressured the Saudi government to sanction Qatar; while it appears that further official sanctions are unrealistic, enforcing the disappearance and subsequent prosecutions of many individuals connected to ranking Qatari officials may be an attempt to appease its gulf neighbors.

Salman al-Odah, a cleric with a 14 million person twitter following was among those arrested for allegedly advocating for “Peace with Qatar.” Photo Courtesy of BBC News.

In particular, the now detained clerics have been vocal critics of the international community’s alienation of Qatar and have called for peace agreements between the Saudi government and Qatar. Moreover, the clerics remained angry with the Saudi condemnation of the Muslim Brotherhood, which remains heavily active in Qatar. While the Saudi government has promulgated the prosecution of the clerics as a matter of national, it appears that the arrests were more centrally a means to quell dissent.

The arrests also come during spike in political uprising within Riyadh. Since assuming office in June 2017, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has faced large opposition from both religious and secular entities. Because his rise was the function of a coup, it has been his prime focus to ensure that the Saudi people are capable of ensuring his political survival. Since June 2017, political tensions have lent themselves to mass political dissent. Because these clerics are considered to be among the elite class, with a twitter following capping at fifteen million people, their incapacitation is a positive contribution from their timely arrests.

The Saudi regime continues to be steadfast in their desire to promulgate the arrests as a measure of national security – critics verbosely disagree. Those who would be expected to be most agitated are without a voice until further word is given from the Saudi officials.

For more information, please see:

BBC News – Saudi Arabia Arrests ‘Clerics’ in Crackdown on Dissent – 13 September 2017

Gulf Times – Saudi Calls for Social Media Informants Decried as ‘Orwellian’ – 13 September 2017

Reuters – Saudi Clerics Detained in Apparent Bid to Silence Dissent – 10 September 2017

After regaining Mosul, Iraq continues steadfast prosecution of ISIS

By:Justin D. Santabarbara
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

Iraqi Security Forces Detain a suspected ISIS fighter (Photo Courtesy of Human Rights Watch). 

Since the Iraqi government regained control of Mosul and much of its northern provinces from the Islamic State in recent weeks, much emphasis has been placed on rebuilding the punitive institutions of government. In rebuilding its criminal justice capacity, Iraq has sought the counsel of the United Nations Human Rights reports, which began implicating the Islamic State human rights abuses in 2015. Together, with independent militia groups, Iraq’s Executive Office, under Haider Al-Abadi and the United Nations, launched an investigatory campaign in 2016. In August 2017, the Iraqi government charged a number of ISIS fighters in absentia with crimes against humanity. Al-Abadi is expected to formally address the United Nations Security Council in the coming weeks. He will likely request that the Security Council adopt a formal resolution to aid in the charging and capture of ISIS fighters.

The Iraqi government and the United Nations have focused the majority of its attention on balancing the sectarian divisions that continued to exist throughout the country. Since the Islamic State divided much of Iraq, the Shia-backed Iraqi military was forced to alienate many of its previous Sunni allies in pursuit of repelling ISIS. Additionally, Yazidis and Kurds have been historically persecuted by both Sunni and Shia. Until Al-Abadi gained the aid of western military forces in recovering Mosul, much of the Northern provinces were neglected, which left Yazidis and Kurds with little support. Al-Abadi’s most arduous challenge will continue to be regaining the trust of these religious sects, while also being successful in repelling ISIS fighters from the region. Human Rights Watch has been highly critical of the Iraqi government’s response to many of these groups, citing their continued detention and torturing of minority sects as a mechanism for screening their loyalties to ISIS.

The Iraqi investigation has faced much criticism from Human Rights Watch. It reports that ISIS fighters continue to be tried arbitrarily and with prejudice. While the imperative for national security remains a central priority for the government, Human Rights Watch has nearly 2,000 trials that have universally resulted in convictions and stringent sentences. Moreover, Human Rights Watch reports that Iraqi security forces have begun prosecuting lawyers, both domestic and international, that are representing the alleged ISIS fighters. Additionally, Iraqi courts do not issue different sentences for minor involvement or otherwise. The sentences have near universally been undisclosed, or death. Iraq continues its roundup by seeking additional avenues of criminal conduct. Among them include the possibility of charging doctors and other officials working under the Islamic State, but not directly toward their combative interests.

For more information, please see:

CBC News – Sectarian divisions exploited by ISIS still endure in Iraq – 5 September 2017

Human Rights First – Iraq Finally Holds ISIS Responsible for Crimes Against Humanity – 1 September 2017 

Human Rights Watch – The Justice Question After ISIS – 25 August 2017