Human Rights Watch released its 2011 World Report last week. The 638-page report emphasises ‘the failure of the expected champions of human rights to respond to the problem, defend those people and organizations struggling for human rights, and stand up firmly against abusive governments.’
Kurdistan Commentary has highlighted noteworthy points from those sections reflecting the situation of the Kurds in the four country chapters mentioned in HRW’s World Report: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
The chapter on Iran has little on the Kurds except for the mention of the executions of Kurdish activists. The Iraq chapter discusses gender-based rights issues and failures to uphold freedoms of expression. The chapter on Syria highlights the Syrian regime’s continued persecution of members of Kurdish political parties and the general repression of Kurdish cultural expression. Finally, the Turkey chapter examines the use of anti-terror laws, the PKK, restrictions on freedom of expression and the KCK trial of Kurdish politicians.
The report’s introduction mentions that the report is not comprehensive. The fact that certain issues are not included ‘often reflects no more than staffing limitations and should not be taken as commentary on the significance of the problem. There are many serious human rights violations that Human Rights Watch simply lacks the capacity to address.’
In October 2010 the UN secretary-general’s office released its report on the situation of human rights in Iran, pursuant to UN General Assembly resolution 64/176. The report noted ‘further negative developments in the human rights situation’ in Iran, including ‘excessive use of force, arbitrary arrests, and detentions, unfair trials, and possible torture and ill-treatment of opposition activists’ following the June 2009 election.
Reports by international human rights groups indicate that prison authorities are systematically denying needed medical care to political prisoners at Tehran’s Evin Prison and other facilities.
The government systematically blocks websites that carry political news and analysis, slows down Internet speeds, jams foreign satellite broadcasts, and employs the Revolutionary Guards to target dissident websites.
In 2009, the last year for which figures are available, authorities executed 388 prisoners, more than any other nation except China. Iranian human rights defenders believe that many more executions, especially of individuals convicted of drug trafficking, are taking place in Iran’s prisons today.
Authorities have executed at least nine political dissidents since November 2009, all of them convicted of moharebeh (enmity against God) for their alleged ties to armed groups.
Among those executed are Farzad Kamangar, Ali Heidarian, Farhad Vakili, Shirin Alam Holi, and Mehdi Eslamian by hanging on the morning of 09 May 2010 in Evin prison without informing their lawyers or families. Another 16 Kurds presently face execution for their alleged support of armed groups, notably PJAK.
The government restricts cultural and political activities among the country’s Azeri, Kurdish, and Arab minorities, including the organisations that focus on social issues. The Kurds make up Iran’s second largest minority group.
The parts of this chapter that focus on the Kurdish north relate to issues of gender-based violence, including female genital mutilation, which the report states ‘is practiced mainly in Kurdish areas of northern Iraq.’
In November the Ministry of Health completed a statistical study on the prevalence of FGM and the data suggests that 41 percent of Kurdish girls and women have undergone this procedure. On 06 July 2010, the High Committee for Issuing Fatwas at the Kurdistan Islamic Scholars Union—the highest Muslim authority in Iraqi Kurdistan to issue religious pronouncements and rulings—issued a religious edict that said Islam does not prescribe the practice, but stopped short of calling for an outright ban. At this writing the women’s rights committee of the Kurdistan parliament had finalized a draft law on family violence, including provisions on FGM, and the Ministry of Health announced plans to disseminate information on the practice’s negative health consequences. But the government has not yet banned FGM or created a comprehensive plan to eradicate it.
Journalists in Iraq also contended with emboldened Iraqi and Kurdish security forces and their respective image-conscious central and regional governments. On 04 May, assailants abducted, tortured, and killed Sardasht Osman, a 23-year-old freelance journalist and student in Erbil. Friends, family, and other journalists believed Osman died because he wrote critical articles about the Kurdistan region’s two governing parties, their leaders, and the ingrained patronage system. Security forces attached to government institutions and political parties harassed, intimidated, threatened, arrested, and physically assaulted journalists. Senior politicians sued publications and journalists for unflattering articles.
Minorities remained in a precarious position as the Arab-dominated central government and the Kurdistan regional government struggled over control of disputed territories running across northern Iraq from the Iranian to the Syrian borders. Leaders of minority communities complained that Kurdish security forces engaged in arbitrary detentions, intimidation, and in some cases low-level violence, against those who challenged Kurdish control of the disputed territories. In other parts of Iraq, minorities have not received sufficient government protection from targeted violence, threats, and intimidation. Perpetrators are rarely identified, investigated, or punished.
There was no significant change in Syrian human rights policy and practice in 2010. Authorities continued to broadly violate the civil and political rights of citizens, arresting political and human rights activists, censoring websites, detaining bloggers, and imposing travel bans.
Emergency rule, imposed in 1963, remains in effect and Syria’s multiple security agencies continue to detain people without arrest warrants, holding them incommunicado for lengthy periods. The Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), an exceptional court with almost no procedural guarantees, regularly sentences Kurdish activists and Islamists to long prison terms.
Twelve leaders of the Damascus Declaration, a prominent gathering of opposition groups including Kurdish political parties, finished serving 30-month prison terms imposed in October 2008 for ‘weakening national sentiment.’
The SSSC sentenced dozens of Kurdish political activists to prison in 2010, including many members of the PYD political party, which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In April the SSSC sentenced four members of the Kurdish Yekîtî Party (Yasha Wader, Dilghesh Mamo, Ahmad Darwish, and Nazmi Mohammad) to five years in prison on the charge of undertaking acts ‘to cut off part of Syrian land.’ Three other prominent Yekîtî members (Hassan Saleh, Muhammad Mustapha, and Maruf Mulla Ahmad) face the same charges in their ongoing trial before the SSSC.
In June a military judge sentenced Mahmud Safo, a member of the Kurdish Left Party, to one year in prison for ‘inciting sectarian strife’ and membership in an unlicenced organisation.
Syria’s press law provides the government with sweeping control over publications. The government has extended this control to online outlets. Internet censorship of political websites is pervasive and includes popular websites such as Blogger (Google’s blogging engine), Facebook, and YouTube.
In March Military Intelligence in Aleppo detained Abdel Hafez Abdel Rahman, a board member of the unlicenced Kurdish human rights group MAF (‘Right’ in Kurdish), and along with another MAF board member, Nadera Abdo. The security services released Abdo and referred Abdel Rahman to trial on charges of ‘undertaking acts to cut off part of Syrian land.’ A military judge released him on bail on 01 September. His trial was ongoing at the time this report was published.
In April authorities released on bail Ahmed Mustafa Ben Mohammad (known as Pir Rostom), a Kurdish political activist and writer, whom they detained in November 2009 for articles he wrote online.
The government continues to prevent activists from traveling abroad, including Radeef Mustapha, head of the Kurdish Human Rights Committee.
All Syrian human rights groups remain unlicenced, as officials consistently deny their requests for registration.
Syria’s multiple security services continue to detain people without arrest warrants and frequently refuse to disclose their whereabouts for weeks and sometimes months, in effect forcibly disappearing them. The authorities have also kept silent about the fate of at least 20 Kurds detained since 2008 on suspicion of ties to a separatist Kurdish movement.
Authorities suppress expressions of Kurdish identity and prohibit the teaching of Kurdish in schools. In March 2010, security forces shot at Kurds celebrating the Kurdish New Year in the northern town of Raqqa to disperse them, killing at least one. In July a military court sentenced nine Kurds alleged to have participated in the celebrations in Raqqa to four months for ‘inciting sectarian strife.’
The report does not mention the many cases of arrest and torture of those Kurds who were forcibly returned to Syria from Europe.
The government made little concrete progress towards realising its 2009 plan to improve the human rights of Kurds in Turkey. The Constitutional Court in December 2009 closed down the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) for alleged separatist activities, and hundreds of officials from the DTP and its successor, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), faced trial for membership of the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), a body connected with PKK.
There is increasing agreement across the political spectrum on the need for a rights-based and non-military approach to ending the conflict with the PKK. Armed clashes between the Turkish military and the PKK continued.
Journalists and editors remained targets for prosecution. Legitimate news reporting on trials was deemed ‘attempting to influence a judicial process,’ reporting on criminal investigations was judged as ‘violating the secrecy of a criminal investigation,’ and news reports on the PKK was deemed ‘terrorist propaganda.’
Some editors and journalists faced scores of ongoing legal proceedings in 2010. The case of Vedat Kurşun stands out among those convicted in 2010. The editor of Kurdish daily Azadiya Welat, Kurşun received a 166-year prison sentence in May for 103 counts of ‘terrorist propaganda’ and ‘membership’ in the PKK. At this writing he remained in prison pending an appeal.
Courts continued to use terrorism laws to prosecute hundreds of demonstrators deemed to be PKK supporters as if they were the group’s armed militants. Most spent prolonged periods in pre-trial detention, and those convicted received long prison sentences. A legal amendment by parliament in July will mean that convictions of children under the laws will be quashed. The laws remain otherwise unchanged.
Hundreds of officials and activist members of the pro-Kurdish party DTP and its successor BDP (which has 20 parliamentary members) were prosecuted during the year, including for links to the KCK.
In October seven mayors, several lawyers, and a human rights defender were among 151 officials and activists tried in Diyarbakır for alleged separatism and KCK membership. At the time of the writing of this report, the mayors had spent 10 months-and the 53 other defendants 18 months-in pre-trial detention, while around 1,000 DTP/BDP officials and members suspected of KCK affiliation were in pre-trial detention nationwide, raising concerns about the right to political participation.
Muharrem Erbey, vice-president of the Human Rights Association (HRA) and chair of its Diyarbakır branch, was arrested in December 2009 for alleged KCK membership and held in detention until his trial in October. Vetha Aydin, chair of HRA’s Siirt branch, was arrested in March for alleged KCK membership.
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