In April 2009 Amnesty International released a report on the human rights situation in Kurdistan called “Hope and Fear, Human rights in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.” Kurdistan consists of Iraq’s three most northern provinces, Dohuk, Irbil, and Sulaymaniya. Under the 2005 Iraqi constitution it is an autonomous region. It has had far more stability than the rest of Iraq, which has allowed its economy and government to grow. Amnesty still found major rights violations however such as beatings, torture, warrant less arrests, detention without access to lawyers, disappearances, etc. Much of this is due to the activities of the Asayish security forces and the two intelligence agencies run by the governing parties. There are also many honor killings against women, and government intimidation and limits on the press. Amnesty believes that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) needs to work on all aspects of ensuring freedom and rights for suspected terrorists, dissidents, women, and reporters, as well as fostering rule of law.
Kurdistan gained its de facto autonomy after the 1991 Gulf War. The two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Massoud Barzani, the KRG President, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by the President of Iraq Jalal Talabani, control the region. In 1992 they held elections for the 105-member Kurdish parliament. The KDP and PUK won 50 seats each, with the other five going to Assyrian Christian parties.
The PUK and KDP agreed to joint rule and power sharing until disagreements led to fighting that lasted from 1994 to 1997. During that period Barzani of the KDP cut a deal with Saddam Hussein to send in the Iraqi Army to crush his rival Talabani and the PUK, which they did. The two sides didn’t come to a peace agreement until 1998. Since then the two parties have run their own security and intelligence agencies. Each party has its own peshmerga militia, Asayish security force, and intelligence agency. The KDP has the Parastin run by Masrour Barzani, the son of Massoud, while the PUK has the Dezgay Zanyari headed by Pavel Talabani, the son of Jalal.
After the U.S. invasion, Jalal Talabani was made President of Iraq, and the new 2005 Iraqi Constitution recognized Kurdistan as an autonomous region, giving the KRG formal authority and the ability to pass its own laws. In the December 2005 elections, the PUK and KDP’s Kurdish Alliance won 53 seats in the 275-member Iraqi parliament, and became part of the ruling coalition behind the subsequent prime ministers. In January 2006 the KDP and PUK signed the Kurdish Regional Government Unification Agreement that merged the two separate administrations. That was true for all the ministries and bodies except for Finance, the peshmerga, Asayish, and intelligence agencies. In May 2006 a new Kurdish government was formed with Massoud Barzani the President of the KRG and his nephew Nechirvan Barzani the Prime Minister. There are also five smaller parties that hold seats in parliament. Despite these successes, many Kurds interviewed by Amnesty and others have complained about corruption, nepotism, and the lack of transparency in the KRG. Many claim that Barzani and Talabani can do what they want without regards to the Kurdish parliament or laws. The Kurds have also taken control of many northern regions of Iraq that they claim are historically Kurdish such as Kirkuk, and administer them even though they are formally under the control of the central government based in Baghdad. There are also Kurdish and Islamist groups, both violent and peaceful that disagree with the KRG. These political disputes are at the heart of the abuses that Amnesty recorded.
The Asayish were formed in 1992 and started operating in 1993. The Kurdish Interior Ministry originally controlled the organization. After the fighting between the KDP and PUK in the mid-1990s each party formed their own Asayish. In 2004 they were made independent of all ministries, with their own budgets. They report directly to the heads of each party. Each town and city in Kurdistan has an Asayish office that also operates its own jail. The headquarters are in Irbil for the KDP, and Sulaymaniya for the PUK. The PUK Asayish is headed by Seif al-Din Ali Ahmed, and the KDP branch is run by Ismat Arguishi. Both agencies have been charged with human rights abuses, including torture. Neither is apparently bound by international, Iraqi or Kurdish law. The Kurdish government has not investigated these charges, and members of the Kurdish parliament say that they can’t make the Asayish accountable either.
Similar allegations have been made about the KDP and PUK intelligence agencies the Parastin and Dezgay Zanyari respectively. They have been charged with arbitrary arrests, running secret prisons, abuse, and torture. The intelligence forces have also gone after critics of the political parties as well as suspected terrorists.
The Asayish and intelligence forces hold hundreds, perhaps thousands of prisoners. An Amnesty report in August 2008 raised concerns about these detainees, and the KRG responded by releasing more than 3,000. Many were required to make weekly check ins with the Asayish on their activities. The main targets of these arrests have been the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam, and legal political parties like the Kurdistan Islamic Movement and the Islamic Group. Critics of the government and journalists have also been held. These arrests are made without warrants. There are also occurrences of disappearances, when the security or intelligence forces take away a suspect without telling anyone about their activities or the person’s whereabouts afterwards. This practice started in the 1990s when the KDP and PUK were fighting each other. The suspects are then taken to prisons, jails, and at times private houses, some of which are secret, for interrogation. Some have very bad conditions. One jail was closed down in mid-2007 after the Minister of Human Rights visited. During this period the detainees are often denied lawyers and access to their families. Iraqi law provides these legal rights to all that are arrested, but the Kurdish forces are not following them. There are reports of detainees being tortured as well, ranging from beatings to electric shock, to suspension by their wrists. Some have died during this process. Beatings are the most common since the Iraqi justice system relies upon confessions for prosecutions. Detentions can last anywhere from days to months to years. The Kurdish Human Rights Ministry considers all of these activities illegal, but has not power to stop them from happening.
Kurdistan’s court system also has problems. Not all suspects picked up by the Asayish and intelligence units are taken to regular courts. Some are secret. There are also stories of trials that only last for one hour, the use of forced confessions, the denial of lawyers even during trial, etc. Some Kurdish lawyers told Amnesty that they were afraid to protest these practices out of fear that they too would be arrested. One judge even wrote an article criticizing the Asayish and received a threatening call afterwards by a top Asayish official. Many don’t believe the Kurdish judiciary is independent. The Kurdish Human Rights Ministry is not happy with the system either and consider it a work in progress.
Women in Kurdistan have made great strides, but traditional practices such as honor killings are a major concern of Amnesty. The KRG has passed laws, setup shelters, and created non-government organizations to deal with women’s rights and issues. Parliament has taken up the issue lately as well. The government and local police all monitor violence against women now. As a result, Kurdistan has far more protections for women then the rest of Iraq. The main problem Kurdish women face today is honor killings. The government counted 102 of them from July 2007 to June 2008. 262 other women were also severely injured or committed suicide during that same time. Amnesty believes that many of these cases were attempts to cover up murders. Despite all the laws and groups, Kurdish women’s lives are extremely limited. They have arranged marriages, limited educations, and very few are active in the workforce. Many attacks against women are not reported, and some police and courts are unwilling to deal with the issue as well. Some women’s organizations have also been threatened for their work.
Due to the relative security of Kurdistan, the region’s media has also flourished. There are many news outlets, and the number has increased. Many are run by the political parties, but there are also more independents as well. Most avoid criticizing the government or security forces however out of fear. Those that do are often threatened or arrested by the Asayish or intelligence forces. They have even gone after writers in Kirkuk, even though it is not part of Kurdistan. One reporter died under suspicious circumstances in 2008 while being held. The government has also sued several newspapers claiming defamation. President Talabani for example, sued the Hawlati newspaper for publishing a translation of an American article that was critical of the KRG. The authorities claim that many of these papers are not professional. As a result, the government has tried to regulate the press in Kurdistan. In September 2008 a new press law was passed, which was aimed at giving them more freedom by banning detention for defamation, and reducing fines, but the security forces have not followed it.
Amnesty’s paper shows that the KRG has two parallel systems operating. One is the Kurdish parliament and regular government bodies that follow the law. The other is a secret one run by the PUK and the KDP, enforced by their security and intelligence agencies that operates by its own rules. Amnesty’s findings about abuses in Kurdistan follows closely a paper by Human Rights Watch from December 2008 entitled “The Quality of Justice, Failings of Iraq’s Central Criminal Court.” Human Rights Watch reported that there were abuses throughout the criminal justice system in Iraq, including Kurdistan. Because the courts rely upon confessions rather than evidence to find guilt, police routinely beat suspects to obtain one. Torture and overcrowding in jails and prison were also common. The Iraqi justice system also lacked due process as suspects were held for months and years without ever going to court, many had very limited access to lawyers, and forced confessions were often accepted by judges. Amnesty’s investigation of Kurdistan shows that it is no different from the rest of Iraq in this regard.
Amnesty International, “Hope and Fear, Human rights in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq,” April 2009
Human Rights Watch, “The Quality of Justice, Failings of Iraq’s Central Criminal Court, December 2008
Majid, Kamal, “An Assessment of the conditions in the Kurdish part of Iraq,” Brussels Tribunal.org, 7/23/08