Guhdar Zebari

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Journalist Guhdar Zebari was due to be released from prison in March 2023 after serving a reduced sentence on an anti-state conviction when Kurdish authorities convicted him in two additional cases. He is now due to be released in February 2024.

Zebari reports and edits for the news website Wllat Media in Akre, a northern Kurdish city. At the time of his arrest, he was preparing to launch a Kurmanji-dialect edition of Wllat News, according to the paper’s editor-in-chief, Wrya Hussein.

On October 22, 2020, Kurdish security forces in 13 vehicles raided Zebari’s house and arrested him, according to Hussein, Ayhan Saeed, the Dohuk representative of the Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy, a local press freedom group that also reported on the incident on its website, and news reports. Initially, no charges were disclosed in his case.

In an interview with CPJ in May 2020, Zebari said he reported on a range of topics, including the alleged murders of people killed over freedom of expression or political activism in the Badinan region, Turkish airstrikes, corruption, embezzlement, and daily life for Kurds during the COVID-19 pandemic. Zebari previously worked for the opposition-affiliated broadcaster NRT, which Kurdish authorities have repeatedly harassed by raiding its offices and arresting its journalists.

In the weeks leading up to the arrest Zebari had been “living in fear” and hiding because he had received threatening messages, Hussein told CPJ, but did not provide details about those messages. He believed Zebari had been targeted over his journalism, saying that, although he was unable to point to any specific articles prompting the arrest, the journalist was consumed with launching the Kurmanji-edition of Wllat and Wllat’s Kurmanji Facebook account.

Guhdar Zebari stood trial on February 15 and 16, 2021, and after pleading not guilty was convicted of being part of a group that gathered information about Iraqi Kurdistan and relayed it to foreign parties. He was sentenced to six years in jail, according to Zebari’s lawyer, Mohammed Abdullah, and Rahman Gharib, general coordinator of the local press freedom group Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app, and court documents that CPJ reviewed.

According to several sources who witnessed the trial and spoke to CPJ, prosecutors produced flimsy and circumstantial evidence to substantiate the allegations against Zebari and his co-defendant, journalist Sherwan Amin Sherwani.

On February 17, 2021, Dindar Zebari, the Kurdistan region government (KRG)’s Coordinator for International Advocacy, issued a statement saying that the conviction was not was related to the defendants’ journalistic work.

In a statement issued by relatives of the defendants, which CPJ reviewed, the journalists’ families said they believe 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.

The lawyers appealed the verdict, but on April 28, 2021, and June 27, 2021, respectively, the Erbil Court of Cassation and the Kurdistan Region’s Court of Appeals upheld the sentence against Zebari, according to news reports and the court decision, which CPJ reviewed.

On February 23, 2022, Zebari’s sentence was reduced by 60 percent, following a presidential decree, according to media reports and his lawyer, Bashdar Hassan, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app. But on March 15, 2023, one day before Zebari was due to be released, the Erbil criminal court sentenced Zebari to seven months in prison for allegedly altering his car’s grill to depict a different make, though the journalist maintains the grill was changed before he purchased it. The sentence was reduced to five months upon appeal, according to one of Zebari’s lawyers, Kamaran Sarmamy.

On October 1, 2023, the Erbil criminal court handed the journalist an additional six month sentence for possession of an unlicensed firearm. According to the journalist’s brother, security forces found an antique hunting rifle belonging to their grandfather when they arrested the journalist in 2021. 

Mohammed Abdullah, one of Zebari’s lawyers, told CPJ that the court prohibited him from seeing his lawyers or even his case file before the two trials.

The journalist is held at the Asayish general directorate.

In response to CPJ’s request for comment, Erbil Asayish spokesperson Ashti Majeed told CPJ in late 2023 that “the charges of the three imprisoned journalists are clear, their whereabouts are known. We don’t have anything else to share.”

CPJ messaged Dindar Zebari and Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, Senior Advisor to KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani in October 2023 for information about the journalist’s case but did not receive any responses.