Free Press Stumbles in Kurdistan

Times Staff Writer

A court in Irbil sentenced a writer to 18 months in prison Sunday for an accusatory article about Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, in a case that has raised doubts about the judiciary’s independence here.

Kamal Karim Qadir, an Iraqi-born Kurd with Austrian citizenship, was arrested last fall and charged with threatening the national security of Kurdistan, a semiautonomous region of northern Iraq that is predominantly Kurdish. The charges came after he wrote a series of controversial articles in 2004 that were critical of the Barzanis, one of Kurdistan’s most powerful families.

The articles accused Barzani, president of the Kurdish region and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, of cooperating with the Iranian government against the interests of the Kurdish people. It said his son, Masrour Barzani, had used prostitutes to spy on Kurds in Europe.

After a one-hour trial in December, Qadir was sentenced to 30 years in prison. In Sunday’s hearing in the regional capital, that sentence was reduced.


A high-ranking Kurdish official, Qubad Talabani, later told CNN that Barzani probably would go further and pardon Qadir.

“Maybe it’s time to revise certain laws,” Talabani said. “We are an emerging democracy ... we need to improve our institutions.”

The judge in the December proceeding, which was held in secret, had ties to the KDP’s intelligence service, which is headed by Masrour Barzani, according to a Kurdish government source with knowledge of the judicial proceedings who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Massoud Barzani nominated the judge to a post in the region’s supreme court, according to a local newspaper account that was confirmed by a Kurdish government official with knowledge of the case.

Kurdish authorities called the new sentence lenient and said that Qadir had been spared a longer prison term because of his background as an educator.

Irbil provincial Gov. Nawzad Hadi Mawlood said that Qadir’s writings endangered the Kurdish region.

“Kamal wrote that we sold Kurdish land to Israel -- that kind of talk is very dangerous to us,” Mawlood said. “Our neighbors -- Turkey, Iran, the Arabs -- nobody would accept this, and the fact that a Kurd is writing these accusations makes them more credible. These writings could lead them to try to destroy us, to attack us.”

But the writer protested his imprisonment at the hearing.

“I swear by God I am not guilty. I am not satisfied with this verdict. I am a victim,” Qadir said, according to Reuters news agency.

Compared with the rest of Iraq, the Kurdish region has been a bastion of security. But the western and eastern parts of the region are split between two powerful political parties -- the KDP, based in Irbil, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, based here, each of which cracks down on opponents from time to time.

In court testimony earlier this month, Qadir said he had been arrested by an extra-governmental KDP security force known as Asayish.

Qadir also claimed that he was held incommunicado for three days in solitary confinement without a toilet, food, water or light. On the third day, KDP officials forced him to sign a confession, he said.

Hadi Ali, the justice minister for western Kurdistan, has criticized the initial sentence and complained that many of his judges are beholden to KDP security and intelligence agencies.

Ali is a member of the Kurdish Islamic Union, a minority political party in Kurdistan that was attacked after it distanced itself from the main parties during the December election.

In an interview last week, Ali said the regional judiciary is open to abuse because there aren’t adequate laws to guarantee civil liberties.

“Because of the problems between the two parties, the parliament has not been able to make laws to help justice work as it should,” he said. “We canceled Saddam Hussein’s revolutionary court, but in Kurdistan we are still using the old Iraqi judicial system that we used 80 years ago.”