The case against Iraqi Kurdish journalists Sherwan Amin Sherwani and Guhdar Zebari was built on flimsy and circumstantial evidence, five observers of the journalists’ Erbil trial last month told CPJ. Their six-year prison sentences on anti-state charges represent a new low for press freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan.
According to rights groups representatives, journalists, and an Iraqi Kurdish lawmaker who witnessed the trial, prosecutors failed to provide convincing proof for the allegations, casting doubt on the fairness of the hearing. Lawyers for the journalists have appealed the verdict; an appeal hearing has not yet been scheduled.
“The evidence was very circumstantial, nothing solid. There was a bit of spaghetti against the wall, like things that are mildly abnormal being somehow suspicious,” one of the witnesses, Winthrop Rodgers, a senior editor at Kurdish broadcaster NRT English, told CPJ via messaging app. “The more substantive things were about exchanging information but that appeared to mostly be examples of them talking like normal people about government corruption. It would have been laughed out of a courtroom in the United States.”
Sherwani, a freelance journalist, and Zebari, a reporter for the Kurdish website Wllat News, are both known locally for their reporting on alleged corruption by Kurdistan regional authorities and coverage of Turkish airstrikes in the region. The two journalists, who have been previously targeted by authorities, were arrested roughly two weeks apart in October 2020; neither was initially informed of the reason for the arrest, as CPJ documented at the time.
On February 16, Judge Zirar Mahmoud Miradkhan convicted Sherwani, Zebari, and three activists of being part of a group aimed at gathering security information and intelligence about Iraqi Kurdistan and relaying this information to foreign parties for the purpose of destabilizing the region. According to witnesses, the trial was dispiriting: prosecutors made broad and damning accusations, only to back them up with vague assertions or none at all.
In court documents, prosecutors implied that the journalists were spying for the United States, referencing alleged meetings between Zebari, Sherwani, and U.S. diplomats in Erbil at which they said the journalists provided information regarding an intelligence agency and prisons. (The U.S. Consulate General in Erbil did not reply to CPJ’s emailed request for comment.)
Court documents also claim that Sherwani received $5,000 from three people working for a group called “Bar” in exchange for information about prisoners, prison conditions, and security personnel. Witnesses to the trial told CPJ that “Bar” was actually the American Bar Association – the U.S. legal group.
(The ABA, which runs programs supporting human rights defenders and journalists around the world, told CPJ via email that the organization is “still looking into these allegations” made at the trial.)
Rahman Gharib, the general coordinator of the local press freedom organization Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy, told CPJ via email that he found it outrageous that authorities would cast routine interactions with diplomats or foreign organizations as suspicious.
“If meeting diplomats in the region or obtaining support from international organizations was a crime, we, the Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy, and other organizations should enter the same prison as Zebari and Sherwani,” said Gharib, who sees the verdict as harmful to the reputation of Iraqi Kurdistan and a regression for freedom of opinion.
According to witnesses, the main evidence produced in court consisted of transcripts of social media chats between Sherwani, Zebari, and other defendants, as well as photographs and voice recordings.
Court documents say that Sherwani and Zebari exchanged information, including pictures and videos, on a Facebook Messenger chat group. However, Mohammad Salih and Kamaram Malaosman, members of the non-profit Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) who monitored the trial, told CPJ via messaging app that the transcript of the chats read in the trial didn’t contain any incriminating anti-state assertions and were mainly conversational in style.
In court, Sherwani explained he was in social media groups to gather evidence about corruption and poor services in the region for research for a book on political terrorism, according to a play-by-play of the trial penned on Facebook by Ali Hama Salh, an opposition lawmaker who was present.
Prosecutors also presented photographs of what they deemed sensitive material, and said that the journalists took them as part of their alleged espionage activities. But at least one of these photographs, of the headquarters of a security agency, was taken by Sherwani in the course of his reporting. According to Hama Salh’s account, Sherwani said he used the picture for a 2015 story on secret prisons in Bashur, the local magazine of which he was editor-in-chief. Hama Salh’s account was corroborated by Sherwani’s defense lawyer Muhammad Abdullah, who spoke with CPJ via messaging app.
In interviews, witnesses to the trial said prosecutors presented a grab bag of additional ostensible evidence, referencing inquiries the journalists made about government officials, without providing details. And at one point, prosecutors displayed a hunting gun they said Zebari planned to use in a terrorist attack. Malaosman and Salih told CPJ that the gun wasn’t the journalist’s but came from his sister’s house; police took it when they arrested the journalist at the home.
Zebari’s defense lawyer, Harem Rafaat, spoke to CPJ via messaging app. He said prosecutors were particularly focused on Zebari’s car, questioning him about why the front part doesn’t match the back part and asking him about his lapsed registration and traffic violations.
“Those questions had nothing to do with the case. They were just trying to implicate him in something,” he said.
Prosecutors also tried to discredit Sherwani and Zebari by saying that they weren’t journalists because they are not members of the government-funded Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate, according to Hama Salh and Rafaat. Sherwani and Zebari replied that they are not legally required to register with the syndicate to work as journalists.
The double sentencing has sparked outrage in Iraqi Kurdistan. In a statement issued by relatives of the defendants, which CPJ reviewed, the journalists’ families said they believe that the verdict was the result of political meddling with the judiciary. They were indirectly referring to remarks Prime Minister Masrour Barzani made six days ahead of the trial accusing the journalists and activists arrested in Duhok and Erbil governorates of being spies.
Amid the outcry after the trial, the Kurdistan Regional Security Council, which coordinates the work of security and intelligence forces, released a video on Facebook that it said would be the smoking gun to prove the journalists’ guilt.
According to CPJ’s review, the March 4 video was mostly a recap of the patchy evidence presented at the trial with one major difference. Rather than imply that the journalists were spying for the United States, the video appeared to claim they were conducting espionage for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a militant group in increasing tension with Kurdish authorities.
Malaosman told CPJ that this appeared to be an about-face on the part of authorities – one that only highlights the lack of evidence against the journalists. At the trial, prosecutors hardly mentioned Sherwani’s alleged ties to the PKK, save for in reference to photographs, one of which depicted him covering a news conference held by a PKK leader, Malaosman said. The video, on the other hand, focused entirely on those alleged links, failing to mention the supposed spying on behalf of the United States.
Niyaz Abdullah, a reporter for the independent radio station Radio Nawa, told CPJ via messaging app that she believes that the trial was retribution for Sherwani and Zebari’s journalism.
“What we witnessed was a use of courts for retribution against journalists, human rights defenders, and civil society activists who have been critical of governance in the region,” she said.
(Dindar Zebari, the regional government’s coordinator for international advocacy, who is not related to the journalist, denied that the convictions were related to the journalists’ work in a February 17 statement and again in an email to CPJ after this article was published. He said that court documents have been sent to an appeals court.)
As press freedom advocates the world over wait for the journalists’ appeal, Niyaz Abdullah warned of a dangerous new era in Iraqi Kurdistan, a region which once prided itself as a beacon of democracy but now imprisons, harasses, assaults, and detains journalists.
“I keep receiving messages from people urging me to stay safe,” she said, “because people feel how dangerous the situation has become.”
Editor’s note: The 25th paragraph has been updated with a response from Dindar Zebari, the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government’s coordinator for international advocacy.