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Police, Civil Servants Punished for Not Voting

Policemen jailed and a minister fired for boycotting the constitution poll.
By Wirya Hama

Dozens of policemen and government employees in Sulaimaniyah province have been reprimanded, fired or imprisoned for not voting in the constitutional referendum.


Civil servants and police officers said they had no idea their decisions not to vote in the October 15 poll might cost them their jobs or land them in jail. They cried foul, noting that the punishments violated democratic principles and their civil rights.


Kurdish officials and a police chief admitted they punished government employees for not voting, saying they had a democratic duty to go to the polls.


Fatah Zakhoyee, culture minister in the Kurdistan regional government's Sulaimaniyah administration, was the highest-ranking official to be dismissed.


Like many Kurds in northern Iraq, he chose to stay away from the polls rather than cast a ballot against the constitution. He is a senior member of the Kurdish referendum movement that advocates independence for the north - something the constitution does not address. All of its senior members decided not to vote, he told the local newspaper, Hawlati.


“The government didn't issue a formal decision obliging government employees to vote," the newspaper quoted him as saying. "Besides, the council of ministers did not discuss this issue.”


The Independent Electoral Commission in Iraq reported that voter turnout in the Kurdish territories was the highest in the country, but the figures are questioned on the streets.


Many opposed to the constitution did not participate in the referendum. They said their votes probably would not counted for much because they hold a minority view and were also wary of possible vote rigging by charter-supporting Kurdish parties.


In Kelar province, about 35 officers in the Garmian police department were interrogated – and some jailed for five to six days – because they did not participate in the ballot.


Kelar, which is home to around 200,000 people, lies approximately 140 kilometres south of Sulaimaniyah in northeastern Iraq.


"I did not believe in the constitution so I didn't vote," said one officer who’d been questioned. "How can a human being be punished for his opinions and beliefs?


"On TV, they say there is democracy in our country. I don't vote, and this is democracy."


Another policeman said he couldn't vote because he was working and his polling station was far from the station - but was given a jail sentence, nonetheless.


"They knew I was on duty," he said. "This imprisonment is unfair and is a human rights violation."


"This is the military," said Colonel Salam Rasul Qadir, head of the Garmian police department. "There is no democracy."


He admitted that policemen who didn't vote has been interrogated and punished. He said they wanted to raise their awareness of the political process.


"These are hicks," he said. "They do not know what the constitution is and the benefits it offers."


According to regulations issued by the Independent Electoral Commission in Iraq, officials cannot question or punish citizens and government employees about their voting preferences. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Iraq adopted, protects the right of citizens to vote.


Jamal Abdulla, the Sulaimaniyah government’s media and public relations director, defended ministries that punished employees for not voting.


“Ordinary citizens have the right to vote or not," Abdulla said. "But government employees have a responsibility and should vote for the sake of public interest.


"The government sees voting as a social responsibility. That’s why the interrogations are justified.”


Hussein Ali, a civil servant in the Sulaimaniyah public works and reconstruction ministry, disagreed. He said his boss reprimanded him for not voting, calling him a traitor and threatening to fire him.


Fatima Walid Mohammed, head of the electoral commission's Kelar office, said the ministries who punished employees for not voting "should know these acts are wrong”.


Wirya Hama Tahir in Kelar is an IWPR trainee journalist in Kelar.


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