New York, February 16, 2021 – In response to today’s sentencing of Iraqi Kurdish freelance journalists Sherwan Amin Sherwani and Guhdar Zebari to six years each in jail, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued the following statement:
“Today’s sentencing of journalists Sherwan Amin Sherwani and Guhdar Zebari is not only unfair and disproportionate, but it also proves that the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government has finally dropped the pretense of caring about press freedom,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Representative Ignacio Miguel Delgado. “Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq should immediately release both journalists, drop the charges against them, and cease harassing the media.”
The Erbil criminal court convicted each journalist of “destabilizing the security and stability of the Kurdistan Region,” according to news reports and Sherwani’s lawyer Mohammed Abdullah, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app. Abdullah told CPJ that the evidence on which Sherwani was convicted was insufficient and baseless. Rahman Gharib, general coordinator of the Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy, a local press freedom group that is monitoring the case, told CPJ via messaging app that the group called for the sentences to be reduced on appeal.
Kurdish security forces arrested Sherwani and Zebari in October 2020, as CPJ documented at the time. During a press conference on February 10, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s prime minister, Masrour Barzani, accused journalists and activists arrested in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Duhok and Erbil governorates in 2020 of being spies, according to the Kurdish broadcaster NRT.
After the publication of this article, on February 17, Dindar Zebari, the regional government’s coordinator for international advocacy issued a statement, which was emailed to CPJ the following day, concerning Sherwani and Zebari’s sentences.
Zebari wrote that “neither conviction was related to the defendants’ journalistic work” and that they “were found guilty of gathering classified information and passing it covertly to foreign actors in exchange for substantial sums of money” and of illegally possessing weapons.
The statement added that the Erbil criminal court “is independent of the government and apolitical.”
[Editors’ note: This article has been updated to include Dindar Zebari’s response to CPJ.]