Fight for justice in Kurdistan as suspect in journalist’s murder is exonerated

The family of Kawa Garmyane, a journalist shot dead in Kurdistan in December 2013, has vowed to continue the fight for justice after Mahmoud Sangawi, a military commander charged with ordering the killing, was exonerated on Sunday by a court in Kalar. The court also upheld the death penalty handed to Twana Khaleefa, who was charged with carrying out the killing.

Sangawi had been named the main suspect in Garmyane’s murder and was arrested on January 7, 2014, but he was released two weeks later after a court ruled there wasn’t enough evidence linking the commander to the killing, according to news reports. He was detained again last month after a warrant was issued for his re-arrest, according to local news reports.

After the verdict the journalist’s brother, Karwan Ahmed, told regional Kurdish satellite station Rudaw TV that he will not stop until justice has been served and the real perpetrators sentenced. Rahman Gharib, general coordinator for nonprofit advocacy group Metro Center to Defend Journalists, told the Committee to Protect Journalists that the court decision was doubtful because Sangawi is a military commander in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the region’s judicial system is “politicized.” He added that questions about Sangawi’s threats to the journalist had not been properly addressed by the court.

The supreme court of appeals will rule on the verdict handed down by the Kalar court soon, according to Rudaw TV and other reports.

A phone conversation uploaded on YouTube in July 2012 purportedly recorded Sangawi threatening Garmyane, who was editor-in-chief of independent monthly Rayal, according to news reports. Sangawi has not denied the authenticity of the call, but maintained his innocence regarding the murder, according to news reports. The appeals court said it found “no direct or indirect piece of evidence that links Mr. Sangawi to the murder,” according to reports.

During a CPJ visit to Kurdistan last May, to present the report “Mountain of Impunity Looms Over Kurdistan Journalists,” local groups and journalists confirmed CPJ’s findings that the region’s judiciary and security systems are rigged by the two longtime ruling parties, the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Each party has its own militia, which acts as security in their respective strongholds and responds to party leaders rather than the ministries of interior or defense. Critics say the parties appoint judges on the basis of loyalty rather than on merit, and that these factors often make it impossible to get high-ranking party and government officials arrested for suspected crimes.

In recent months Sangawi has been commanding Peshmerga forces in the town of Jalawla, where Kurdish fighters are fighting the Islamic State. He is featured prominently in the government’s efforts to push back the militia, and in an update on the fight in the region last month, told the BBC “There is no terrorist presence in the whole of the province.”

Gharib told CPJ that Khaleefa, whose case was also heard by the appeals court, had confessed to Garmyane’s murder, claiming the journalist belonged to the Communist Party, which Khaleefa blamed for the death of two family members.

During the CPJ mission to Kurdistan the regional government admitted it had fallen short of its commitments to press freedom, particularly in the cases of murdered journalists Sardasht Osman and Garmyane. “We know we made mistakes and we have shortcomings, but we are learning from the past,” Fouad Hussein, chief of staff for Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, told CPJ.

But a few months after the mission, the press freedom record deteriorated further. The Metro Center has documented 200 cases of attacks against journalists in 2014, many of which it said went uninvestigated.

Officials told CPJ in May that the government would do everything it could to ensure justice in Garmyane’s case. Authorities seem to understand impunity is part of the cycle of violence, but the question is whether there is enough political will to combat it.