Kurdish Iraqi authorities arrested Kurdish journalist Sherwan Amin Sherwani on October 7 and he awaits trial on anti-state charges. Sherwani has been jailed multiple times for his reporting.
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 counted more than 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.
On October 7 at 4:30 pm, 10 police officers raided Sherwani’s home in Sebiran, a village on the outskirts of the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil, and arrested him, Sherwani’s wife, Rugesh Izzaddin Muheiadin, told CPJ. The Metro Center for Journalists’ Rights and Advocacy also reported on the arrest.
Muheiadin told CPJ that the police officers, four of whom were in plain clothes, seized the journalist’s two laptops, his notebooks, and some CDs. She said 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 that the journalist’s arrest was related to his reporting, though 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.
According to Abdullah, Sherwani was charged with spying for the United States on the allegation that he provided information to U.S.-based non-governmental organizations about secret prisons in Iraqi Kurdistan that torture prisoners. He confirmed that the journalist was charged under Article 156 of the Iraqi Penal Code.
Abdullah said he has been prevented from accessing most of the documentation of legal proceedings against Sherwani, which are ongoing.
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 shortly after his arrest. Muheiadin told CPJ she didn’t know why Sherwani’s Facebook account had been removed or by whom.
According to the journalist’s lawyer, as of late 2020, Sherwani is being held in solitary confinement at the General Directorate of Asayish prison in Erbil.
On October 26, Abdullah was able to visit him in prison, but was only permitted to stay for six minutes. Abdullah told CPJ that solitary confinement has had a negative impact on the journalist’s psychological and overall health but did not provide further details.
On November 2, Sherwani’s mother, brother, and wife tried to visit him but prison authorities turned them away because they lacked the appropriate permits; after they acquired the permits from a court, authorities told them there was no time to visit the journalist and turned them away, Muheiadin said.
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. The case is still pending. Abdullah said that during his visit with the journalist on October 26, 2020, Sherwani provided additional details of treatment by authorities during the 2019 arrest; he said the journalist was forced to give testimony at a Dohuk court without the presence of his lawyer and that the testimony was mistranslated from Kurdish to Arabic and edited without the journalist’s permission. Abdullah said he formally requested that the Dohuk court retake the journalist’s 2019 testimony. Sherwani was arrested another time, in April 2012, when he was apprehended without a warrant and held for several days in relation to two articles alleging government corruption, according to CPJ research.
In late 2020 CPJ emailed Zebari with follow-up questions about allegations that the journalist was beaten and that his testimony before the Dohuk court was changed without his permission but did not immediately receive a response.