International criticism comes after Appellate Court in Kurdistan Region of Iraq upholds conviction of three journalists and two activists

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region of Iraq — The Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council stood firm on Saturday in the face of widespread criticism over the decision of the Appellate Court of Erbil Region’s decision to uphold the internationally criticized convictions of three journalists and two activists by a lower court.

Despite widespread condemnation for its handling of the matter, the Supreme Judicial Council argued in a statement that the lower court had made rulings based on accurate facts and records and handled the issues impartially at all stages of the trial.

Local and international human rights organizations, press freedom watchdogs, foreign governments, and impartial experts have also expressed deep reservations regarding the prosecution and verdict, which several have characterized as politically biased and focused on flimsy facts and unproven claims.

“The decision remains difficult to comprehend, lacking clear proof of punishable crimes,” stating the German Consulate in Erbil on Thursday.

“Free and independent media are cornerstones of democracies,” wrote the Canadian Embassy in Iraq. Journalists and diversity of opinions supply the oxygen that is vital for free, inclusive, and informed societies.”

The Appellate Court of Erbil Region upheld a lower court’s 16 February conviction of journalists Sherwan Sherwani, Guhdar Zebari, and Ayaz Karam, as well as activists Shvan Saeed Omar and Hariwan Issa, of attempting to undermine stability in the KRI. They were each sentenced to six years in prison.

Security forces in Nohadra (Duhok), who are allied with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), detained all five defendants last autumn as part of a crackdown on protest organizers and journalists.

They all vehemently refuted the charges against them, claiming that any of the claims accepted by the court included things they did not, or were coerced into, saying.

In the Appellate Court’s decision to uphold the lower court’s ruling, it stated that, “[The defendants] had also contacted the American consulate and German consulate and took money from them.”

In response to the allegation, the German consulate wrote that, “Free exchanges with journalists and activists are part and parcel of diplomats’ daily work, also of [the German consulate]. The Court’s reference today is absurd and goes against the spirit of our close and friendly relations.”

“We expect host governments all around the world to respect the work of U.S. diplomats, who — much like journalists — meet with a variety of people in order to do their jobs. We extend this same courtesy to foreign diplomats working in the United States, including representatives of the KRG,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Consulate General in Erbil told Rudaw English by email.

The Supreme Judicial Council slammed its detractors, saying they were interfering with the Court’s freedom and disrespecting its integrity by opposing its decision.

“Our duty and the duty of all citizens and political and civil parties is to abide by and obey to the independence of the judiciary, the rule of law, and the decision of the courts,” it said.

The Council did not address, however, the personal intervention of Prime Minister Masrour Barzani who held a press conference less than a week before the start of the trial where he alleged without evidence that the defendants were foreign backed spies seeking to undermine the KRI.

“Some of them have tried to blow up buildings and to kill and abduct foreigners in the Region,” he stated without providing evidence to back his claims.

During the brief nine-hour trial, the allegations and statements made by PM Barzani were not explored. Nor were the defendant’s attorneys allowed to cross-examine witnesses or object during the proceedings.

In a report, Human Rights Watch said that, “this prejudicial statement issued shortly before the trial is inappropriate high-level political intervention in the cases and violates the presumption of innocence.”

In a 2020 report on human rights in Iraq, the U.S. State Department wrote that, “KRG senior leaders reportedly influenced politically sensitive cases. Judicial appointments and rulings were reportedly also influenced by the Region’s strongest political parties.”