Iraqi-Kurdish authorities arrested Sherwan Amin Sherwani in October 2020, and on February 16, 2021, he was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of destabilizing the security and stability of Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Sherwani, who has been jailed multiple times for his reporting, is being held at the Asayish prison in Erbil.
Sherwani is a freelance journalist who contributes to the independent news website Kiwan and provides reporting and political commentary on his personal Facebook account, which had over 10,000 followers before it was taken down shortly after his arrest. Sherwani covers human rights and corruption and has reported on Turkish airstrikes in northern Iraq.
At 4:30 p.m. on October 7, 2020, 10 Kurdish police officers raided Sherwani’s home in Sebiran, a village on the outskirts of the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil, and arrested the journalist, his wife, Rugesh Izzaddin Muheiadin, told CPJ. The Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy also reported on the arrest.
The police officers, four of whom were in plain clothes, seized the journalist’s two laptops, notebooks, and some CDs, Muheiadin told CPJ The officers held a gun to Sherwani’s head, handcuffed him, and pushed him into a car with tinted windows before driving away. She said the officers had a warrant for Sherwani’s arrest, but that it provided no information on why they were taking the journalist; nor did the officers verbally disclose the reason for the arrest.
In a statement sent to CPJ via email on October 11, Dindar Zebari, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s coordinator for international advocacy, said that Sherwani had been arrested under Article 156 of the Iraqi Penal Code, which states that any person who violates the independence, unity, or security of the country can be punished with life imprisonment.
Zebari said that during the preliminary investigation, Sherwani had confessed to receiving funds from abroad to fuel public disturbance, defame social and political figures, promote vandalism during peaceful protests, and threaten judges. He added that Sherwani had been arrested outside his capacity as a journalist, though did not provide further details.
Muheiadin, the journalist’s wife, told CPJ that she believed Zebari’s assertions were false, and she felt it was unlikely that Sherwani made the alleged confession.
Sherwani’s lawyer, Mohammed Abdullah, told CPJ via messaging app that he believes the journalist’s arrest was related to his reporting, although he did not know which specific articles may have drawn the attention of authorities. Abdullah said that during Sherwani’s interrogation, authorities beat the journalist until he handed over his passwords to his cell phone and laptop. He did not have any further details of the alleged beating.
Sherwani was charged with spying for the United States, by providing information to U.S.-based non-governmental organizations about alleged secret prisons in Iraqi Kurdistan that torture prisoners, Abdullah told CPJ. He confirmed that the journalist was charged under Article 156 of the Iraqi Penal Code.
In the days prior to his arrest, Sherwani had published posts on his Facebook account criticizing the Kurdistan region’s prime minister, Masrour Barzani, and urging legislators to ask the prime minister about killings of journalists and human rights activists in the region. CPJ was able to review the posts before the Facebook page was taken down. Muheiadin told CPJ she did not know why Sherwani’s Facebook account had been removed or by whom.
Sherwani was convicted on February 16, 2021, 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 security and stability of Iraq’s Kurdistan region and 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.
Sherwani pleaded not guilty, according to coverage of the trial published on Facebook by Ali Hama Salh, an opposition lawmaker who was present.
Prosecutors produced flimsy and circumstantial evidence to substantiate the allegations against Sherwani, according to Winthrop Rodgers, a senior editor at the Kurdish broadcaster NRT who covered the trial, and Mohammad Salih and Kamaran Malaosman, members of the non-profit Christian Peacemaker Teams who monitored the trial, all of whom spoke to CPJ via messaging app.
In court documents reviewed by CPJ, prosecutors implied Sherwani was spying for the United States, referencing alleged meetings between him and U.S. diplomats in Erbil at which they said Sherwani provided information regarding an intelligence agency and prisons.
According to witnesses of the trial who spoke to CPJ, the main evidence produced in court consisted of transcripts of social media chats between Sherwani and other defendants, including journalist Gudhar Zebari, as well as photographs and voice recordings.
Court documents say that Sherwani and journalist Guhdar Zebari exchanged information, including pictures and videos, on a Facebook Messenger chat group. However, Salih and Malaosman told CPJ that the transcript of the chats read in the trial did not 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 Hama Salh’s coverage of the trial on Facebook.
Prosecutors presented photographs of what they deemed sensitive material and said 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 during his reporting. 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.
Prosecutors alleged that Sherwani was not a journalist since he is not a member of the government-funded Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate, according to Hama Salh and Rafaat. Sherwani replied he is not legally required to register with the syndicate to work as a journalist.
In a February 17 statement, Dindar Zebari maintained the conviction was not related to Sherwani’s journalism.
In a statement issued by relatives of the defendants, which CPJ reviewed, the Sherwani and Guhdar Zebari’s families said they believe the verdict was the result of political meddling with the judiciary, 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.
On April 28 and June 27, respectively, the Erbil Court of Cassation and the Kurdistan Region’s Court of Appeals upheld the six-year sentence of Sherwani, according to news reports and the court decision, which CPJ reviewed.
Sherwani is serving his term at the Asayish prison in Erbil where he is held in a small, overcrowded cell with no visits by family or lawyers, and he is only allowed to call his family for five minutes each week, according to Muheiadin, Sherwani’s wife, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app on September 7, 2021.
Ayhan Saeed, a representative of Metro Center and a spokesperson for the relatives of the imprisoned journalists, told CPJ via messaging app that Sherwani’s lawyers officially requested a general amnesty for Sherwani from the Kurdish president, but authorities denied that any petition was filed.
On September 21, Sherwani began a hunger strike to protest his conviction, which ended in late September after he was transferred to a different prison, according to Ragaz Kamal, founder of the local human rights group 17 Shubat for Human Rights, who spoke on the phone with the journalist and who spoke with CPJ via messaging app and news reports. Kamal added Sherwani had been transferred to the Erbil Adult Reform Prison.
In an email sent to CPJ on October 5, Dindar Zebari insisted that Sherwani’s conviction, like those of other journalists, is not related to his work as a journalist. Zebari confirmed Sherwani had been transferred to Erbil Adult Reformatory Center on September 9 and maintained that detainees and prisoners enjoy their full legal rights.
Sherwani was previously arrested on January 28, 2019, in Duhok, after he reported on Turkish airstrikes in Iraqi Kurdistan, and was held for 42 days on allegations of committing acts against the security of the state, as CPJ reported at the time.
In April 2012, Sherwani was arrested and held for several days in relation to two articles alleging government corruption, according toCPJ research.