A member of the Asayish security forces as seen in Sulaimaniya, Iraq on May 13, 2018. Members of the force arrested freelance photojournalist Qaraman Shukri on June 27, 2020. (Reuters/Ako Rasheed)

Kurdish Iraqi security forces arrest freelance photojournalist Qaraman Shukri at his home in northwestern Kurdistan

New York, July 8, 2020 — The Committee to Protect Journalists today expressed concern over the arrest by Iraqi Kurdish security forces of freelance photojournalist Qaraman Shukri. 

On June 27, officers with the Kurdish Asayish security force arrested Shukri, a freelance contributor to pro-Kurdistan People’s Party (PKK) news website RojNews and the broadcaster KNN, which is affiliated with the Gorran Movement, a group in opposition to the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), according to news reports, the regional press freedom organization Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy, and a statement posted to Facebook by the Kurdish Iraqi organization 17Shubat for Human Rights. The arrest was made at Shukri’s home in Shilazdeh, a village northeast of the western Kurdish city of Duhok, according to the reports and statements.

The Metro Center quoted Shukri’s uncle, Naimet Rikani, who said that the Asayish officers who arrested Shukri told the journalist that they had to ask him some questions and they would release him later, but he was subsequently transferred to the Asayish headquarters in Duhok.

In a July 7 video interview with the news website Zhyan Media, Hamdi Barwary, a lawyer who works for the Kurdistan Human Rights Organization’s Duhok office, said that Shukri had been taken to Duhok’s Zirka Prison, but he was not sure if the journalist is still being held there.

“We are very concerned about the arrest of Qaraman Shukri, given the Iraqi Kurdish Asayish forces’ poor track record on respecting the rights of freelance journalists,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa representative Ignacio Miguel Delgado. “Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq must explain immediately their grounds for holding Qaraman Shukri or release him.”

Another Duhok-based human rights lawyer, Reving Yassin Nabi, who has been in touch with Shukri’s family, told CPJ via messaging app on July 7 that Shukri has not been allowed visits by either relatives or lawyers. CPJ was unable to locate contact information for Shukri’s lawyer, Ramadan Artisi.

On June 19, Shukri was interviewed on a special program of the PKK-affiliated broadcaster Sterk TV about Turkish airstrikes in Iraqi Kurdistan, according to a CPJ review of the broadcast, which was posted on Facebook. During the broadcast, Shukri said that several people had been killed and injured in an airstrike that day, and that the Kurdistan Regional Government had yet to condemn the strikes. He also said that people in the area where the bombing took place were planning to demonstrate against Turkey.

According to news reports, Turkish airstrikes killed three Iraqi Kurds on June 19 in areas near Shilazdeh.

Handren Hawrami, the host of the Sterk TV program on which Shukri appeared, told CPJ via messaging app on July 7 that he and Shukri’s relatives believe that Shukri’s arrest was in retaliation for his participation in the June 19 program on the Turkish airstrikes, and one other program, the details of which he did not provide.

“Shukri was covering the situation in Shilazdeh and the victims of the Turkish airstrikes. He appeared twice and then he was arrested. Other people who have appeared on Sterk TV in the past have been harassed and summoned by Asayish, some of them have even been arrested. There is strong pressure by security forces on activists and journalists not to appear on Sterk TV,” Hawrami told CPJ.

According to the Metro Center’s report, the Asayish Duhok Command denied that Shukri’s arrest was related to his work as a journalist.

In an email sent on July 13, Dindar Zebari, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s international advocacy coordinator, told CPJ that rather than to his journalism, Qaraman Shukri’s arrest was related to a lawsuit filed against him by a private individual on charges of fraud. 

According to Zebari, Shukri impersonated a public official and took bribes in exchange for releasing people who were in prison. As a result of this, he has been charged under Law 160 of 1983, which could result in a punishment of up to 10 years imprisonment and a fine of 500 dinars ($0.50) if he failed to provide what he promised. 

Ragaz Kamal, co-founder of 17Shubat for Human Rights, told CPJ via messaging app on July 7 that Shukri was arrested by Asayish forces twice before. The first time was on January 26, 2019, during which time he was held for 22 days, and the second was on January 6, 2020, Kamal said. After the second arrest, the length of which Kamal said he did not know, security forces told Shukri that he should stop covering Turkish airstrikes in Iraqi Kurdistan and stop providing information to PKK-affiliated outlets, Kamal said.

In recent months, authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan have threatened outlets and journalists over coverage of sensitive issues.

[Editors’ note: The text in the 12th paragraph has been updated to include a response from Zebari.]