This is a speech by Houzan Mahmoud on behalf of the Freedom Umbrella campaign, at an event in the memory of Sardasht Osman hosted in the UK Parliament 15 June 2011.
I'm speaking in memory of Sardasht Osman and in support of the 62 days of mass uprising violently suppressed by the Kurdistan Regional Government.
On behalf Chatre Azadi, the Freedom Umbrella Kurdish Action Group, I would like to welcome you all and thank you for coming to commemorate Sardasht Osman, who is a symbol of the fight for freedom in Kurdistan.
I would also like to thank John McDonnell for hosting and chairing the event.
Lastly, on behalf of Freedom Umbrella, I would like to thank all the distinguished guest speakers.
Today I will be speaking about:
- Sardasht Osman and his assassination
- Kurdistan after Sardasht Osman
- The formation of Freedom Umbrella and what we are doing now
Who was Sardash Osman?
Sardasht Osman was a journalist who was murdered for daring to speak out.
More than a year ago, on 4 May 2010, Sardasht was kidnapped by gunmen outside the language department of Salahaddin University in Erbil. He was taken through checkpoints to Mosul, and found dead there on 6 May. His body was scarred by torture, and there were two bullets in his head.
Sardasht was not the first writer to be killed. For instance, Soran Mama Hamma was killed in 2008, shot dead in front of his home in Kirkuk after he published a number of investigative stories on the corruption of the security services. But the kidnapping and murder of Sardasht Osman sparked a protest movement that is still growing stronger.
Sardasht was 23, a final year student at Salahaddin University. He began receiving threats in December 2009, after he published an article entitled "I love Barzani's daughter". This article mocked Barzani by saying that Sardasht's family could escape from its rigid poverty if he married the president's daughter and thus gained some of his huge wealth.
Such satire broke a taboo in Kurdish politics. Sardasht went on to publish a number of satirical articles critical of the Barzani tribe and the leaders of the KRG.
Knowing that his life was under threat, he actually wrote a 'farewell article', in which he said: “In recent days, I was told for the first time that my life is going to end. As they said to me, they no longer give me their permission to breathe”.
In this article, he described the reaction of his university dean and of the police to his situation. His dean told him that the matter was a police issue and the police commander told him that Erbil is “a safe city. None of the threats will be seen through.”
No one cared for his safety, and the authorities denied him protection. But Sardasht stayed adamant that he would continue to say what needed to be said.
He wrote: “To stay alive, though, we must tell the truth. I will continue to write until the last minute of my life. Let my friends put a full stop at the end of the sentence and let them start a new one!” This is what we are seeking to do!
Journalists, intellectuals and politicians accused the KRG authorities of being behind the murder. Kurdish people were outraged and soon thousands were protesting in cities across Kurdistan, and in the Kurdish diaspora worldwide.
Under this immense pressure the KRG formed an investigative commission, which published its findings on 15 October.
It said that the murder had nothing to do with Sardasht Osman's journalistic activities. It claimed that he had been murdered by Ansar al-Islam, the Kurdish Islamist group linked to al-Qaeda, for refusing to cooperate with them. Apparently the KRG security forces had arrested someone in this connection.
Ansar al-Islam issued a statement on 23 October denying any role in the murder. These are not people who are shy or embarrassed about killing people! As a result, people became more disbelieving and more angry about these findings.
Sardasht Osman was murdered for daring to say out loud, to write and to publish what everyone else just thought about in silence.
Kurdistan after the murder of Sardasht Osman
To the call for justice for Sardasht, we can now add the call for justice for those murdered in the protests which followed the 17 February uprising.
Since 4 May 2010, Kurdistan has not been the same. State-sanctioned violence in Kurdistan had been unveiled, and provoked a strong reaction.
The murder and protests against it sparked a new revolutionary spirit, among the youth especially. The protests have taken in wider issues - not just repression and like of rights, but corruption, poverty, unemployment and inequality.
On 17 February, there were demonstrations in Sulaymania in solidarity with the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. This day ended in bloody clashes between young protestors and the Kurdistan Democratic Party's so-called security forces, leaving 15 year old Rezhwan Ali dead and injuring many others.
Nonetheless, these peaceful protests for freedom, equality and social justice continued until 19 April, when - after 62 days - thousands of troops violently suppressed the movement in Sulaymania and the surrounding towns.
The crackdown has targeted all sorts of activists, but particularly the independent media. According to the Metro Centre to Protect Journalists, more than 200 journalists have been harassed, arrested, wounded or tortured.
Kurdish security forces, police and peshmarga forces attacked journalists covering the protests. Dozens were beaten, dozens arrested and their equipment seized.
A few more examples:
- Nalya Television and Radio in Sulaymania was set on fire.
- Dang Radio in Kalar city was attacked, and intellectuals, journalists and activists beaten and arrested.
- Writer and protestor Rebin Hardi was arrested, beaten, targeted for character assassination and threatened with death.
- Farooq Rafiq was detained and, after being released, targeted for character assassination.
- Ahmed Mira, chief edtior of Lvin magazine, received death threates from armed forces minister Shekh Jaafar Mustafa for publishing reports exposing the ruling parties' corruption. Also targeted for character assassination
- Another journalist, Soran Omar, had his car burned during the protests, and there were attempts to kidnap his son.
- Nawzad Baban and outspoken critic and one of the organisers of Sarai Azadi was kidnapped and later released.
- Ismail Mohammed Amin, one of the organisers of the Sarai Azadi demonstrations was kidnapped and tortured before being dumped in the middle of the night.
The list is endless. The climate of fear, persecution and repression in Iraqi Kurdistan is getting worse all the time.
Formation of Freedom Umbrella - why?
Exposing these crimes against the Kurdish people on an international level is a very important act of solidarity.
It was just over a year ago, after the murder of Sardasht Osman, that we formed Freedom Umbrella. A group of activists, journalists and academics in the Kurdish community got together to campaign against repression, corruption and inequality, and for freedom of expression, civil rights and social justice.
Since then we have organised demonstrations, rallies, seminars and other public events. We have worked closely with MPs, MEPs and human rights organisations in order to expose the KRG's human rights violation. This has included presenting evidence to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Kurdistan.
We asked them to reconsider their position of unconditional relations with the KRG. To our disappointment, however, they seem to believe whatever the KRG tells them.
They launched an inaccurate report entitled "Kurdistan: 20 years after the uprising" in March this year.
Under the cover of 'neutrality' they praised Barzani, and portrayed Kurdistan as a beacon of democracy. In the month the report was launched ten people were killed by KRG militias and hundreds were injured, arrested and tortured. The criminals are still not brought to justice.
Despite this, we have received support and solidarity from the Green Party in both the UK and Sweden, from socialist groups, from many MEPs and MPs including John McDonnell and from trade unionists and campaign groups. We will continue to work in the cause of freedom and equality in Kurdistan and around the world.
We invite everyone to support our work and activism.