Writer sentenced to 18 months in Kurdistan

New York, N.Y., March 27, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the 18-month prison sentence handed down against an Austrian writer for defaming local officials in Iraq’s semiautonomous northern Kurdistan region.

A court in the Iraqi city of Arbil sentenced Kamal Karim, whose name is also given as Kamal Sayid Qadir, on Sunday for articles that appeared on Kurdistanpost, an independent Kurdish news Web site. The articles criticized the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and its leader Masoud Barzani, whom the journalist accused of corruption and abuse of power. Barzani is also president of the Kurdistan region.

Karim has been in detention since he was arrested by security agents affiliated with the KDP in Arbil on October 26, 2005. Karim was born in Iraq but immigrated to Austria, where he gained citizenship.

Sunday’s hearing culminated a retrial that spanned parts of two days in March. A Kurdish state security court convicted Karim of defamation and sentenced him to 30 years in jail on December 19, 2005. The first trial lasted only an hour.

“It’s an outrage and sad reflection of press freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan that Kamel Karim is imprisoned for expressing his opinion,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “He should be released immediately.”

Cooper added: “Kurdish officials say they support democracy, but that is belied when a journalist is thrown in jail for what he wrote. Regrettably, Iraqi authorities are following the poor example of their neighbors who routinely detain, criminally prosecute, or imprison reporters for their work.”

On Sunday, the judge attempted to portray yesterday’s sentence as an act of leniency. “We helped him,” the judge was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying. “We took into consideration that he is an academic and has served in the education field. So we sentenced him to a year and a half. Otherwise we would have sentenced him to five years.”

CPJ is monitoring another criminal defamation case in northern Kurdistan. On March 17, security forces affiliated with the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) arrested Hawez Hawezi, a 31-year-old high school teacher who writes for the independent Kurdish weekly Hawlati near the city of Arbil. He was released two days later but faces unspecified defamation charges based on a column he wrote criticizing the PUK and the KDP. The article accused both parties of governing northern Iraq badly, referring to them as pharaohs. It called for new leadership in Iraqi Kurdistan.