On February 16, 2021, a criminal court in Iraqi Kurdistan 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 a reduced sentence at the Asayish general directorate in Erbil. He is due to be released in February 2023.
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.
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 in a 2021 interview. According to Saeed, the lawsuits, both filed by Kurdistan Regional Security Council, accuse him of damaging the security, stability, and sovereignty of Iraqi Kurdistan and of illegally possessing a weapon because he had his grandfather’s shotgun at home; the journalist has not faced official charges on the basis of these accusations.
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. Zebari is due to be released on February 22, 2023, according to Hassan and Saeed, who spoke to CPJ via phone.
Saeed told CPJ that on July 19, 2022, Zebari and other imprisoned journalists and activists went on hunger strike, an event also reported by local news outlet Esta. Saeed said the journalists were striking to attain conditional release, but that “their strike lasted for 40 days, without any response.”
CPJ messaged and called Erbil Asayish spokesperson Ashti Majeed and emailed Dindar Zebari in September 2022 for information about Zebari’s case but did not receive any responses.