Violence against people engaging in public discourse in Iraqi Kurdistan

Human rights report by CPT, August 2017

cover photo from

cover photo from


The current condition of human rights in Iraqi Kurdistan has concerned many people, institutions and human rights organizations. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been neglecting large-scale human rights violations and in many cases the government itself has committed violations towards members of civil society, human rights defenders, journalists, political activists and religious leaders which is contrary to standard international laws. The following report outlines current findings in regards to human rights violations relating to freedom of speech and political expression currently taking place in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Overview of Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan (IK) is located in northern Iraq with a population of over 5 million as well as over 2 million IDPs and refugees. It is the only autonomous region in Iraq and is officially governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) with its capital being in Erbil.  The Kurdistan region has its own government, parliament, judiciary system, flag and separate regulations from the central government of Iraq. The establishment of the region dates back to a March 1970 autonomy agreement between the Kurdish opposition movement and the Iraqi government following years of heavy fighting. After the agreement was not implemented another lengthy civil war followed between Saddam Hussein and the Kurds. The Iran/Iraq War, and the Anfal Campaign against Kurds, led by Saddam’s Iraqi Army, devastated the population and environment of Iraqi Kurdistan. During the Kurdish people’s uprising in March 1991, the Kurds and Peshmerga (the Kurdish Army) pushed out the Iraqi Army from most of the areas of Iraqi Kurdistan. After the United States-led invasion of Iraq, a new constitution was drafted in 2005 defining Kurdistan Region as a federal entity of Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan is comprised of four main governorates: Sulaimani, Erbil, Duhok and Halabja. However, since the Iraqi crises and war against IS (Islamic State), the Kurdish Peshmerga have taken control over many disputed areas including a majority of the Kirkuk governorate and parts of Nineveh governorate.  

State of human rights and freedom of speech in Iraqi Kurdistan

The people in Iraqi Kurdistan long suffered from the previous Iraqi regimes. Throughout history many Kurdish people protested, fought and struggled for freedom of speech. However, since the formation of Iraqi Kurdistan’s semi-autonomous government in 1991 the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has not yet provided a space where journalists, human rights, civil society, and political activists can freely function. Over the past few years, it has been increasingly difficult for the above-mentioned groups to exercise freedom of speech and expression. Many journalists and members of civil society have been killed, severely beaten, imprisoned, threatened, had movement within Iraqi Kurdistan limited, or have been displaced outside of the country stating that Iraqi Kurdistan has become a very unsafe place for them.

Current situation surrounding Referendum on Independence

The authorities of Iraqi Kurdistan have planned a referendum vote for independence of Iraqi Kurdistan from the Central Iraqi Government set to take place on September 25th, 2017. As part of its mandate, Christian Peacemaker Teams - Iraqi Kurdistan (CPT) as an international human rights NGO sees the issue of the referendum as a right for the people of Iraqi Kurdistan to decide and holds no official position as to a desired outcome. However, we are obliged to observe the current status of human rights in Iraqi Kurdistan throughout this process. The discourse regarding the referendum has greatly impacted many people throughout the region.

The upcoming referendum vote for Kurdistan's independence has been a political highlight for the people of Iraqi Kurdistan but engaging in the process of critique and debate has proven difficult for many activists and journalists. The Kurdish political parties, civil society, religious leaders and journalists have been divided between two groups: one supporting the referendum, and the newly formed “No for Now Movement” standing in opposition. The "Yes" campaign is being led by the two central governing parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, with the No for Now Movement being organized by some members of parliament, local businessmen, members of civil society, religious leaders and journalists. Supporters of the "No for Now" campaign in Sulaimani, Duhok and Erbil cities, as well as several districts, have found it difficult to openly debate and critique this issue. They often face threats of or even direct violence. In addition to physical violence and harassment, the two main KRG political parties have directed warnings of expulsion from Iraqi Kurdistan towards those publicly voicing criticism to the referendum.

To date, The Kurdistan Regional Government has not provided the civil society, journalists and other political or nonpolitical groups with a safe space to express their views freely. Despite all the challenges that the above named groups are presently facing, in the past many people have been killed, threatened, imprisoned, beaten or expelled from their cities and homes. The late events in Iraqi Kurdistan such as the ongoing financial crises, the non-functional Parliament, corruption and a lack of safeguards protecting freedom of speech and political expression, coupled with the slated referendum vote for Kurdish Independence has made a volatile political climate in the region and set a stage for increasing human rights violations.

Current findings of persons at risk

Christian Peacemaker Teams - Iraqi Kurdistan would like to bring your attention to several members of civil society, journalists, religious leaders and members of Parliament that have been affected by the latest events. The following is just a sample of an influx of reports coming from within the region.

Sherwan Sherwani, an outspoken journalist, activist, and human rights defender. Currently, Sherwan is involved in the “No for Now” campaign for the upcoming referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. Recently security forces raided his home and he is currently being monitored by unknown people. Sherwan told CPT that security forces in Erbil and Duhok have threatened, imprisoned and insulted him in the past. Furthermore, the party media has started numerous social media accounts in a campaign of defamation targeting Sherwan and his family. Sherwan is seriously worried about his safety and the safety of his family members due to the continuous threat from the security forces in Erbil. He urges the international community to ask the Kurdistan Regional Government to protect his family as well as the rest of the people in the region.  

Farhad Sangawi, is an activist, member of Parliament and a journalist. Currently, he is part of a ‘’No for Now’’ campaign for the upcoming referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. His brother’s house was recently raided while Farhad was present. He was then abducted by unknown men accompanied by governmental security forces and later released. Mr Sangawi has been verbally threatened for his stance on the referendum campaign as well as been asked to leave the country.

Sami Othman Faraj (Mala Saman), is a religious leader and political activist in Chamchamal district. Mala Saman has been very outspoken about women's rights, the political status of the KRG and corruption in the region. On August 18th, 2017 while he was going to mosque to give his friday speech, he was stopped by a BMW car and beaten severely. Mala Saman told CPT that five people in the car injured his head. Mala Saman also reported to CPT that the people who beat him were sent by the Chamchamal security forces. Furthermore, officials told him to leave his work or he would be assassinated. In 2011, the government fired him from his job for four years due to his involvement in demonstrations demanding freedom of speech and an end to corruption in public sector.


Christian Peacemaker Teams, as an international human rights organization takes no stance on Kurdistan's Referendum on Independence and sees the outcome of the impending vote to be a matter decided by the citizens of the region. However, as a human rights NGO we have been disturbed by our recent findings of violence, kidnappings and threats resulting from public engagement of Iraqi Kurdistan's citizens in debate surrounding the referendum vote. We also have great concern over the ongoing threats towards those openly critiquing the current situation within Iraqi Kurdistan. CPT sees these actions as major human rights violations and condemns any such acts against journalists, activists, and religious leaders.

As Iraq is a signatory of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is the Kurdistan Regional Government's duty to provide protection to people living within Iraqi Kurdistan and to safeguard their inherent human rights including their rights to safety and freedom of speech.