Guhdar Zebari was imprisoned for his journalism on anti-state charges in retaliation for his work. (Photo: Shahnaz Zebari)

Iraqi Kurdish journalist Guhdar Zebari is free from prison, but not from threats

On February 17, 2024, Iraqi Kurdish journalist Guhdar Zebari was released from prison, concluding a three-and-a-half year legal saga that saw him convicted on anti-state and other charges in retaliation for his work.

Zebari is one of the so-called “Badinan prisoners” – a group of journalists and activists from the ethnic Badinani group who were arrested in the wake of 2020 anti-government protests and tried in court processes that observers called flawed and politically motivated. Two of these journalists, Sherwan Sherwani and Qaraman Shukri, are still in prison. Together, they have become icons of the freedom of expression movement in Iraqi Kurdistan after their imprisonment sparked international outrage.

In an interview with CPJ after his release, Zebari described the charges he faced, his experience in detention, and the state of press freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan. 

CPJ did not receive responses to its requests for comment on Zebari’s case from Dindar Zebari, the Kurdistan Regional Government coordinator of international advocacy, Erbil Asayish spokesperson Ashti Majeed, and Mahmood Mohammed, spokesperson of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You were arrested in connection with your work, yet Iraqi Kurdish authorities have said multiple times that your case is not journalism related. What is your response to that?

At the time of my arrest, I was preparing an investigative report about migration of young people from the Shiladze district in Duhok governorate. This investigation followed a four-day training course organized by the German consulate in Sulaymaniyah city. Upon my return, security forces raided my sister’s house and arrested me while I was working on the report.

The accounts presented during the investigations, in court, and in the media were inconsistent. They attempted to conceal the true nature of the case and convince the public that our arrests were not related to journalism. This was because they couldn’t legally arrest us under press laws, which only entail fines and not arrests. Their motive was retaliation, hence they fabricated accusations to justify imprisoning us.

When [Prime Minister] Masrour Barzani labeled us as spies posing a threat to national security before the trial, those who supported him were instructed to assert that we were spies, not journalists. Masrour Barzani was willing to sacrifice everything, including the integrity of the courts and security agencies, to support this plot. The government and its security agencies were complicit in this scheme. But within the government, there were dissenting voices. The president of the region, Nechirvan Barzani, disagreed with these measures [and in 2022 reduced their sentences by 60%].

Your trial on anti-state charges was built on flimsy and circumstantial evidence, and you lacked proper access to a lawyer. Can you talk about the difficulties in the legal process?

During investigations, we were forced to unlock our phones, and we were blindfolded the whole time. We couldn’t see anything about our case. They didn’t tell us what charges we were facing; they just wanted to know who was giving us information. But you know, journalists aren’t supposed to reveal their sources. The investigators were always angry, and whenever I requested a lawyer, they would laugh mockingly. They’d say, “Who do you think you are, asking for a lawyer? Do you really believe any lawyer can assist you?”

We only got permission to call our family after 11 months. Even then, we were only allowed to call once every 15 days, for just two minutes. They listened in on the calls, so we couldn’t discuss our case, charges, or even our health. This made it impossible for us to defend ourselves.

One time, I tried to tell my father over the phone that we had been sentenced to six years for writing about and defending our people’s rights, and that we were fighting for justice. They [prison authorities] immediately ended the call and punished me by putting me in solitary confinement for 16 days.

In a democratic country, authorities gather evidence before arresting people. But in our case, they arrested us first and then searched our phones and personal files to find evidence. They claim they are the law, the homeland, the nation, and everything. If you criticize this system, they say you’re against the country, the law, and the court.

We were only criticizing certain people in the government, not the whole region. Many people supported us, and even in prison, some people from [the ruling] Kurdish Democratic Party sent messages to me and my family. That shows we’re not a threat to national security; we were just criticizing one government and one person. But they act like they represent the whole nation. All the political parties supported us, except for one person who was the prime minister. That shows it’s all personal.

How were you treated in prison?

In the beginning, I spent 62 days in solitary confinement, and it was the worst time of my life. Even when we were taken to the bathroom, they covered our heads with towels so we couldn’t see anything. The whole situation was filled with fear and panic.

After that, I was moved to a small cell measuring six meters [19.7 feet] in length and 4.5 meters [14.8 feet] in width, where there were 150 people, sometimes even more. It was overcrowded, making it difficult to breathe or sleep, especially with so many smokers around.

After December 2021, I was transferred to the correctional facility in Erbil, which was better, but still involved a lot of psychological torture. We [Zebari and Sherwani] weren’t allowed to read, and that rule was only for us.

Sherwan endured further mistreatment when he was penalized for a common practice in the Kurdistan Region: signing on behalf of friends. Qaraman Shukri has also suffered undue punishment. I urge Kurdistan President Nechirvan Barzani to grant a pardon and rectify this strategic error.

[Editor’s note: Sherwani was accused of falsely signing Zebari‘s name on a petition submitted by several prisoners in August 2022; Sherwani’s lawyer said that Zebari, who was in solitary confinement at the time, had given Sherwani permission to sign.] 

What has life been like since your release?

Every night since my release, my family has been receiving threatening calls from known and unknown individuals. These individuals assert that I am “outspoken and critical” in my public speeches. They urge my family to persuade me to refrain from speaking against the government and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Guhdar Zebari receives guests after his release from prison in February 2024. (Photo: Shahnaz Zebari)

On the first day of my release… I had held a press conference during which I strongly criticized Masrour Barzani, labeled the government’s behavior as “extreme authoritarianism,” and asserted that [my town] Akre is under the control of KDP [Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party]. A friend informed me that the security agency conducted a meeting to address my statements. The agency head instructed his team to draw a clear “red line” for Guhdar.

I didn’t take the threat seriously, but later my cousins informed me that the head of Asayish [the Kurdish government security force] in Akre said that my speech was too harsh and I would have to pay a price. I am living now in one of the villages around Akre city. My father received phone calls from the village’s mukhtar [local chief] who relayed a message from Reza Zebari, head of the Zebari tribe, saying “Don’t speak like this, don’t go out, don’t talk to any other channels, just be quiet.”

Here in Iraqi Kurdistan, there’s no guarantee for our safety. I face constant threats and live with uncertainty. I don’t know if I’ll be here tomorrow or not. This is the reality for journalists in Kurdistan. It’s like walking on a minefield, where danger can explode at any moment.

How is your health?

Physically, I’m in good health; however, psychologically, I feel disoriented and unstable. My time in Asayish prison left me in a dire state, isolated from the outside world.

Now that you are out of prison, will you continue your journalism?

It’s too early to make concrete plans, but yes, I intend to continue with journalism. I have ambitious goals to advocate for human rights and journalists’ rights. My aim is to report on news that impacts people. I want to establish an effective media outlet in the Badinan area [an area of Iraqi Kurdistan where the ethnic Badinani group is from, known officially as Duhok] and I have submitted my proposal to some people and parties who can be potentially funders of the project, to be able to work freely and professionally. I have some positive responses, and I urge international organizations to back my project aiming at promoting press freedom in the Badinan area in Iraqi Kurdistan to push our government to follow real democracy, not fake promises. It’s frustrating because they [the government] say they support democracy, freedom of the press, and human rights in public, but behind closed doors, they don’t take those issues seriously.

Since I just got out of prison, I need time to think about what to do. I don’t want to leave my country or stop being a journalist. I want to keep reporting and improve myself so I can help my colleagues who are still in prison.

Iraqi Kurdistan was long perceived as a safe haven for journalists. But in recent years, CPJ has documented numerous press freedom violations. How would you rank press freedom there now?

Iraqi Kurdistan is not a safe place for journalists. The courageous ones who report the truth always face threats. For example, Sherwan Sherwani has been an editor for many magazines since 2004, including a well-known one in Kurmanji. He’s received numerous threats and has been arrested multiple times because of his work.

One important point I want to emphasize is the difference between real journalists and those who work for government-affiliated media outlets. In my opinion, simply reporting positive government achievements isn’t journalism; real journalism involves uncovering what they [authorities] are hiding and bringing it to light.

Any other message you want to relay after your release?

To the world, I want to say that your support keeps us going. We rely on your support, and people often ask us why we keep going. It’s because we depend on your support, so please continue to stand with us.

Additional reporting by Soran Rashid.