Post Demonstration: Speaking Truth to Power in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

by David Hovde

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Ismail Abdulla worked as a driver for a retired leader in the government in the city of Sulaimaniya. On February 17, 2011, people began to demonstrate in Azadi Square in the city, against corruption in the ruling parties in the Kurdistan Regional Government. In the first days of the demonstrations, the security forces killed a teenager and at times shot randomly into the crowd. The organizers from the stage spoke of freedom and justice. Along with thousands of others, Ismail came daily to the square.

Ismail volunteered at the demonstrations. He started speaking from the stage, and became one of the daily speakers. He continued working, but started to receive many threats. The government cut his salary. A high government official called him and asked him to stop speaking from the stage, offering him a new apartment if he obliged. Ismail said he would not sell himself or his beliefs. He recorded the phone conversation and played it from the stage. He also gave the recording to a local TV station.

By April 19, the security forces ended the demonstrations. They used tear gas on the crowds, and burned down the stage. Ismail went into hiding. When he heard that the two rulings parties were talking to the opposition groups, he thought it was safe to come out. It seemed the authorities might be finally paying attention to those calling for change.

Late in the evening on May 26, Ismail went to the supermarket with some friends. As he returned to his car, two cars pulled up in front of it. Eight men in ski masks came out of the cars and put a mask on him. They put him in one of the cars as they beat him with the butts of their guns. They drove for about 30 minutes, stopped, and made Ismail get out. They beat him with cables on his legs, and the butt of a gun on his face. One of them got a phone call, then said, “Don’t kill him. Just put a sign on his face that he was beaten.” At that point, one of them took off his mask, while another used his gun to break Ismail’s nose in three places. They cut him with knives in his arms and back. They said, “If you ever get involved in demonstrations again, we’ll kill you.” Ismail said, “If there was a demonstration right now, I’d do it again.” One of them took his finger and broke it. Ismail lost consciousness.

They put him in a car, drove him about 25km outside the city, and dumped him. He walked toward the city. Cars passed him by when the drivers saw the blood on him. He walked all the way into the city, then used a phone in a store to call a family member. While he waited, a taxi driver recognized him and drove him toward the hospital. They met up with his family. Friends and journalists gathered round him, as the doctors helped him.

A month later, Ismail’s health is improving. He has had surgery to fix the bones in his nose. Leaders in government, society, and security forces talked with him, ensuring him the investigation for his abductors with continue. Ismail says they either do not know who did it, or they are lying. “The people come out on the streets peacefully,” Ismail says. “The (government) forces come out with violence. We don’t want to become like Syria. We don’t want violence and civil war.”