Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The quest for civil society in Kurdistan: Sardasht Osman’s enquiry

By Dr Rebwar Fatah


The kidnapping of a young journalist in broad daylight in front of his university in Arbil, regional capital of Kurdistan, and later finding his tortured body dumped, miles away, on a street in another province, Mosul, marks a turning point in the region’s relationship between the authorities and the population; in particular, the elite intellectuals and media professionals.

There is no hard evidence to pin the murder on any ‘actor’, whether it be a state or a non-state actor. However, evidence showing that the group responsible for this crime moved freely about the regional capital, kidnapping an individual in the heart of the city in true James Bond fashion, has raised serious questions, none of which shed favorable light on the KDP or PUK, the two ruling groups of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

A heavily guarded vehicle stopped in front of the University of Salahadeen, where Sardasht was a student, grabbed him, pushed him into the vehicle and drove away, without anyone intervening; not even the guards in front of the university. Then, the group took Sardasht (dead or alive, no one knows), passing half a dozen KDP checkpoints, to the governorate of Mosul (the checkpoint on the border between the KRG region and Baghdad-controlled Iraq is almost impenetrable). At some point in this ordeal, 23-year-old journalist Sardasht Osman was tortured and murdered. The two bullets shot directly into his mouth were meant to be symbolic; Sardasht had been silenced.

The authorities, particularly the Barzani-led KDP, who control the region, claimed that they had no knowledge of this crime and at first, dismissed it entirely, under several different pretexts. No convincing explanation was ever offered. However, the tireless campaigning of intellectuals and ordinary citizens did not stop. The reason was clear. A prominent Kurdish journalist and campaign supporter once told me, “This is such a calculated, cold-blooded murder; it cannot just disappear into thin air.”

It was as a result of this mounting local and international pressure that the KDP promised to launch an enquiry into the case.

After a few months, the KDP reached the conclusion that the young journalist had been associated with an insurgent group, and because he refused to work for them, he was killed. Perhaps making matters worse, on one of their many state-sponsored TV stations, the KDP broadcast an admission to the crime, by an unknown person.

Shortly after this broadcast, everyone, including Sardasht’s family, dismissed the findings, claiming that everything had been staged by the KDP. This realisation enraged Sardasht’s family and the rest of the population, including the intellectual elite. According to his family, the conclusion of the enquiry was as painful as the murder of their family member.

What are the consequences of the KDP findings?

The findings have seriously undermined the authority of the KRG. If there is a non-state actor, such as an insurgent group, that conducts such a sophisticated plan for abduction and murder in the KDP region, then the security of the citizens, foreign nationals and their interests, in ‘the other Iraq’ (the term used by KDP when referring to Kurdistan), has been dangerously compromised.

This, in any democracy, should result in the reviewing of all security services, which in the case of Kurdistan, are comprised of about half a dozen organizations, each with its own organs and control. These include, but are not limited to: Asayish, Parastin, Police, Zerevani, Pehmerga, Anti-terror, Dezgay Zaniyari, the guards of each party official (in particular, the numerous guards of Barzani, his nephew, his sons and so on). A simple question needs to be asked, “Where were all these security apparatuses when Sardasht was kidnapped?”

The conclusion of Sardasht’s enquiry is extremely damaging to the morale and sense of safety of the ordinary citizens. It has destroyed the trust between citizens and authority. Outside of Kurdistan, there is no shortage of written material available on the subject in the international media, confirming that the reputation of the KRG has been seriously tarnished. What will be the impact of this in attracting and maintaining regional and foreign investments in Kurdistan?

I don’t know how the KDP enquiry was conducted, but like everyone else, I am disillusioned with the outcome; not because I accused anyone or any authority of the murder of the young journalist, but because the findings do not help in moving the region forward, do not help heal the pain of Sardasht’s family, and created mistrust among the citizens and foreign investors, all of which should have been taken into account during this enquiry. If anything, the findings did the exact opposite, instead resulting in further damaging the citizens’ trust in their authorities as well as the trust of foreign investors so badly needed in the region.

Despite the fact that Sardasht’s ordeal was a very unfortunate incident in the region and saddened all of us, it presented a great opportunity for us to unite as a community, rallying around the authority in support of a just, thorough and impartial effort to determine the truth about this incident during the enquiry. I drew a parallel between this and the July 2005 bombing of the London transport system, the resulting enquiry having just been launched in a London court. The London community utilised this incident to unite both citizens and authorities at a huge rally in central London, where they expressed outrage over the despicable murders of ordinary London transport commuters. Likewise, Sardasht’s enquiry had the potential to be a source of progress and unification.

Among the enquiry’s many shortcomings is the fact that it was not conducted publicly, rather, it was conducted in utter secrecy, making it perhaps the only of its kind. Broadcasting the alleged perpetrator, known as Hisham Mahmoud Ismaeel, on TV and trying him by the KDP-sponsored media was not right. Sadly, Sardasht’s case was not the only one; Sheikh Zana’s gang was also tried on TV and almost a dozen individuals were executed in KDP prisons, without trials that met the international standard.

These trial and enquiry methods have their roots in the Baath culture, and during my lifetime, I have witnessed many similar TV trials conducted by the Baath. I wished I would never have to see one again, after the ousting of the government of Saddam Hussein. For example, after the trial of former communist Aziz Haj, and his ordeal in the dark dungeons, he was made to announce on Iraqi TV that the communist party, the only alternative political power to the Baath, had been defeated. Then, again under the Baath, Abu-Tabir (the Axe-Men), was a gang that moved around Baghdad killing people in the most brutal of ways; with an axe. This complex and sophisticated campaign of mass murder in Baghdad was all blamed on one person, known as Hatim Kadhim, who was tried on Iraqi-sponsored TV and Iraqis all lived happily ever after. Sardasht’s enquiry should never have followed in the footsteps of the brutal and corrupt Baath regime.

Trial on TV undermines the entire judiciary system and reveals that the judiciary has no role in maintaining rule of law. Further, it proves that the security services operate outside the control of the judiciary. They rule, not the cabinet and not the parliament. What is the role of the ‘independent Judiciary council’? This is contrary to the Iraqi constitution and also to international law, conventions and norms, which the KRG claims to honour. To many, it appears that the region is moving towards a governing rule similar to that of Saddam Hussein or Bashar al-Asad, where only the ruling clan holds power, while creating the impression of democracy to convince both the domestic population and international community that the region follows the democratic trends of the West.

This secret trial by TV violates the rights of the accused, as enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which requires that the accused be granted a fair and public hearing before a “competent, independent and impartial tribunal”. In addition, it violates the Iraqi constitution, by which the Kurdistan Regional Government is bound.

The enquiry erred in blaming one person for the operation. The objective evidence clearly reveals that a group of armed men in a vehicle were responsible for the act. Has the enquiry identified who these people were and how they were linked to the man on TV? Of course, Sardasht’s family announced that they have no case against the TV man.

Contrary to the objective evidence, the KDP enquiry concluded that Sardasht was shot, not in the mouth, but in the head, and he was not tortured. To make matters even murkier, the report never mentioned that the young student was also a journalist. This has alienated those who waited months for the result of the enquiry. It is clear that the enquiry was a politically-calculated one, not factually correct.

A public enquiry is not about pinning a murder on someone or showing that the authorities are capable of finding the perpetrator. It is much wider than this. In any system, things go wrong. In Sardasht’s case, things went seriously wrong, which needs to be acknowledged and addressed, in order for it to be rectified and to not happen again. The enquiry should identify the deficiencies in the system and propose ways to resolve them, albeit, the resolution can be left for the responsible parties to resolve. In this way, the KRG would regain some of the trust of Kurdistan’s public and the international community.

I don’t know the individuals involved in Sardasht’s enquiry; perhaps the problem starts here. An enquiry like this should be public and the individuals must be high profile people with known impartiality. A cross-party committee of the parliament would have been a good way to constitute a committee for the independent enquiry.

We may also learn by drawing a parallel between the enquiries of British Stephen Lawrence and Kurdish Sardasht Osman.

The black British 18-year-old student, Stephen Lawrence, was stabbed to death while waiting for a bus on the evening of 22 April 1993.

In 1999, an enquiry headed by Sir William Macpherson, a well known individual, examined the original Metropolitan police investigation and concluded that the police were "institutionally racist". Unlike Sardasht’s enquire, Sir Macpherson’s one blamed the authorities. The case was a milestone in the British justice system and also for race relations in the UK. Furthermore, it is believed that it paved the way for the creation and passing of the Criminal Justice Act (2003), that altered the centuries-old principle of double jeopardy—which stipulated that a person could not be tried twice for the same offence.

The kidnapping, torture and murder of a 23-year-old student and journalist in broad daylight and in the heart of regional capital shocked us all. However, the findings of the KRG enquiry were very unfortunate, as many simple facts that we all knew seemed to be distorted or missing entirely; a failed attempt to undo what we already knew about the murder.

Perhaps the positive side of this unfortunate incident is that the Kurdistan population will no longer accept atrocities perpetrated against them; they require honesty, transparency, clarity and accountability from authorities.