On February 16, 2021, a Kurdish Iraqi criminal court sentenced journalist Guhdar Zebari, to six years imprisonment on charges of destabilizing the security and stability of Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Zebari, who was arrested by Kurdish security forces in October 2020, is serving his sentence at the Asayish prison in Erbil.
Zebari reports and edits for the news website Wllat News 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.
Saeed sent a video to CPJ showing Zebari’s room immediately after the raid, depicting mattresses and closet contents scattered across the floor. Security forces seized all the electronic devices in the house, Saeed said.
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 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 Sherwani’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.
Zebari pleaded not guilty, according to Winthrop Rodgers, a senior editor at the Kurdish broadcaster NRT who covered the trial and spoke to CPJ via messaging app, Mohammad Salih and Kamaran Malaosman, members of the non-profit Christian Peacemaker Teams who monitored the trial and talked to CPJ via messaging app, and a play-by-play of the trial penned on Facebook by opposition lawmaker Ali Hama Salih.
According to the same sources who witnessed the trial and were consulted by CPJ, prosecutors produced flimsy and circumstantial evidence to substantiate the allegations against Zebari.
In court documents reviewed by CPJ, prosecutors implied Zebari was spying for the United States, referencing alleged meetings between him and U.S. diplomats in Erbil at which they said Zebari provided information regarding an intelligence agency and prisons.
According to witnesses, the main evidence produced in court consisted of transcripts of social media chats between Zebari and other defendants, including journalist Sherwan Sherwani, as well as photographs and voice recordings.
Prosecutors presented photographs of what they deemed sensitive material, and said the journalists took them as part of their alleged espionage activities.
Prosecutors also tried to discredit Zebari by saying that he wasn’t a journalist because he is not a member of the government-funded Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate, according to Zebari’s defense lawyer Harem Rafaat. Zebari replied that he is not legally required to register with the syndicate to work as a journalist.
Rafaat told CPJ via messaging app that prosecutors were particularly focused on Zebari’s car, questioning him about why the front doesn’t match the back, his lapsed registration, and traffic violations. “Those questions had nothing to do with the case. They were just trying to implicate him in something,” Rafaat said.
On February 17, Dindar Zebari issued a statement saying that “neither [Zebari or Sherwani’s] conviction 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 and June 27 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.
Zebari is currently serving his term at the Asayish prison in Erbil, according to the journalist’s brother Zedan Zebari, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app in September 2021. The prison authorities are trying to wear Zebari down psychologically by refusing to transfer him to another prison and arbitrarily changing the time for his calls to his family and, since his arrest, the family has only been allowed two short visits in the presence of officers.
Zebari’s lawyers officially requested a general amnesty for Zebari from the Kurdish president, but authorities denied that the petition was filed, Ayhan Saeed, a representative of the Metro Center and spokesperson for the relatives of the imprisoned journalists and activists, told CPJ via messaging app in September 2021.
Dindar Zebari did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment, sent on September 21, 2021, about the reasons for not allowing relatives and lawyers to visit Zebari in jail.
In an email sent to CPJ on October 5, 2021, Dindar Zebari said that Zebari is being held at the Asayish general Directorate in Erbil because he has two pending lawsuits at the Erbil criminal court.
“Once the trials are carried out for these two cases, he will be transferred to a reformatory facility,” Zebari added.
On September 22, 2021, Ragaz Kamal, founder of the local human rights group 17 Shubat for Human Rights, told CPJ that Zebari was in poor health and had been banned from calling his family because he refused to break his hunger strike.
Zebari and other imprisoned journalists ended the strike sometime in late September, Ragaz Kamal told CPJ via messaging app in early November 2021.