Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Halabja Protesters May Face Death Penalty

Mass arrests and crackdown on journalists in wake of protest over memorial to victims of Saddam-era crime.
By Amanj Khalil
Demonstrators who last week torched a monument to the victims of a gas attack on Halabja could face the death penalty if convicted, according to a judge investigating the incident.

The monument was set ablaze on March 16 when 2,000 locals - mostly young men - staged street protests to prevent officials getting into Halabja to take part in ceremonies to mark the anniversary of the 1988 attack by Saddam Hussein’s military, in which 5,000 people died.

Locals said they mounted the demonstration because of anger at what they said was cynical exploitation of their plight by local politicians.

Investigative judge Karwan Wrya Ali said that under a Baathist-era law adopted by the Iraqi Kurdistan government, the punishment for destroying government property is life in prison or death by hanging. "Anyone convicted of setting the monument on fire will be executed," he said.

He also said that demonstrators would be held responsible for the death of a 17-year-old boy, Kurda Ahmed, who, witnesses reported, was shot by security forces during the protest.

It’s unclear, however, just how much weight the judge’s views carry. He will not oversee the trial of the protesters - which will take place in Sulaimaniyah's criminal court, and Emad Ahmed, deputy prime minister for the Kurdish regional government's Sulaimaniyah administration which governs Halabja, has played down the prospect of death sentences being delivered, "I don't think those convicted will be executed if the charges are proven."

So far, Iraqi president Jalal Talabani and Kurdistan regional president Masood Barzani have declined to comment on last week’s incident.

Officials from Halabja, who had rolled out red carpets for anniversary of the tragedy, had earlier been warned that locals were planning a peaceful sit-down action designed to embarrass the visiting dignitaries and block their access.

But a build-up of security forces in the town suggested the authorities were determined to ensure everything went according to plan.

International delegates from Hiroshima and Italy visited the memorial on March 15. The following day, ceremonies to mark the anniversary were called off after three hours of unrest during which demonstrators burnt tires, rolled rocks into the road or lay down there themselves to prevent officials driving into the town.

The incident is the latest of several youth-driven actions challenging the government. Officials have accused Islamists of being behind the 2,000-strong demonstration, but appear to have acknowledged locals’ grievances. Following the disturbance, they pledged 30 million US dollars in 2006 to develop water, roads and housing in Halabja.

Organisers claim the demonstration was a people's movement that drew residents of all political affiliations - including members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party that dominates Sulaimaniyah's government.

Halabja has been eerily quiet as Kurdish authorities chase down suspects and raid houses. A four-year-old boy, Mohammed Karim, was shot last week as security forces pursued and fired at a 53-year-old man. Both are being treated in a Sulaimaniyah hospital.

A security source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities have arrested about 80 people. Kurdish regional government spokesman Jamal Abdullah said 40 to 45 remain in custody, suspected of setting the monument on fire and inciting violence. Local human rights groups have not been allowed to see the detainees.

All of the demonstration's organisers are now in hiding. "I'm afraid of being arrested and tortured to confess things I haven't done," said one who asked not to be named. He said eight protest organisers will meet with Emad Ahmed to try to convince him that they did not sanction the attack on the monument, "What happened was a reaction to the security forces opening fire on demonstrators."

At least seven journalists were beaten during the demonstration and others had their cameras and recorders seized. The authorities have demanded that local reporters cooperate with the investigation by turning over any footage, photos and notes taken at the protest. The Kurdistan Journalists' Syndicate, widely seen as an arm of the government, is supporting that demand.

Iraqi Kurdistan's leading independent newspaper, Hawlati, has refused to cooperate. "Journalists have the right not to give up their sources," said Twana Osman, editor-in-chief. "The government is making unethical and undemocratic demands of journalists."

A Hawlati journalist was arrested following the protest after writing an opinion piece encouraging Iraqi Kurds to flee the region because of oppression by the local authorities. Hawez Hawezi has since been released on bail but will be tried for inciting an uprising.

Osman says his arrest is part of the larger government crackdown. "This is a direct attempt to suppress journalists and intellectuals who want to criticise government," he said, adding the strong-arm tactics would not work.

“[The crackdowns] will ultimately hurt the PUK [party]," he said. "They will be forced to change their policies."

Amanj Khalil is an IWPR trainee journalist in Sulaimaniyah. Iraqi Crisis Report Kurdish editor Mariwan Hama-Saeed contributed to this report.

More IWPR's Global Voices

Why Did Cuba Jail This Journalist?
Rights defenders say that unusually harsh punishment reflects wider troubles for Havana regime.
Under A Watchful Eye: Cyber Surveillance in Cuba
Cuba's Less Than Beautiful Game