By Tracey Shelton and Harem Bahaddin in Sulaimaniyah
Freedom-of-speech protesters in Kurdistan are daily risking their lives
June 18, 2011
SULAIMANIYAH, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — The masked man screamed insults as he slashed a knife at Ismail Abdulla's face. His words were almost as sharp as the blade.
''You son of a dog,'' the attacker yelled. Others joined in, threatening to rape Abdulla's mother - an unthinkable horror in this part of the world. Then they beat him with their rifle butts, breaking his nose in a burst of blood.
The brutality occurred on May 27, after Abdulla had been abducted by eight men wearing balaclavas and Kurdish army uniforms. He was taken to a remote spot, beaten, cut and threatened with death if he ever participated in anti-government demonstrations again.
''I had been expecting this,'' said the 28-year-old behind dark glasses covering two black eyes. Deep slash marks stretched from his sleeve to his broken fingers.
For two months before the attack, Abdulla took to a podium each day in Sulaimaniyah's public square to rally protesters against government corruption.
Inspired and often overshadowed by pro-reform uprisings throughout the Middle East, Abdulla and other Kurdish activists spearheaded a protest movement that raged in the semi-autonomous region of Iraq from February to April this year.
The streets are calm, for now, but beneath the facade of peace is anger and disillusionment over a government that prefers bullets before dialogue.
If the protests here remained on the sidelines of higher-profile regional revolts, it's because the government wanted it that way and used violence to assure it.
Medical workers said at least 500 protesters were injured and 10 killed by the military over the course of the protests. Activists recorded more than 900 arrests. In many cases the detainees were held without charge. And, like Abdulla, many were beaten, threatened and abused.
An Australian citizen of Kurdish descent recounted his abduction by police in the regional capital, Erbil, during a visit from his home in Sydney. Dr Pshtewan Abdullah joined protesters in an Erbil shopping district when he was abducted by Kurdish secret police and locked in a small room where officers punched and kicked him for more than four hours.
''There was blood coming from my nose, ears, arms, back, thighs, my right eye,'' Abdullah told Amnesty International in his recount of his abduction.
A Kurdish youth is arrested as some 4,000 people rallied in Tahrir Square in the centre of the Sulaimaniyah, Kurdistan region of Iraq, on April 1, 2011. Photo: Getty Images.
Brave few ... Protesters gather in Sulaimaniyah in opposition to Kurdistan government corruption, March 2011. Photo: Saman Majeed.
''Every five minutes they would have a break and then two different officers would replace them … They were swearing at me, swearing on my wife and kids.''
After decades of war against the army of Saddam Hussein, the Kurdistan region gained relative independence in 1991 with the backing of key Western nations including Australia.
Two ruling political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), still dominate the government and economy. In contrast to the rest of Iraq, security in Kurdistan was stable and business booming - until this year and cries for change.
The protests released a darker side of Kurdistan. More than a month after the demonstrations were quashed by government forces, arrests and threats continue. Hundreds of protesters, journalists and intellectuals remain in hiding.
Joost Hiltermann, Iraqi political analyst for the International Crisis Group qualified the protesters' cries of government corruption saying: ''The Kurdish system of government is opaque, pervasively corrupt and nepotistic, with weak and partisan institutions, political parties that control appointments at all levels of government and favours party members.''
International human rights' groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders have condemned the brutal crackdown but ruling parties deny the use of excess force, claiming the measures used were necessary for keeping the situation peaceful.
''In Egypt the people had no freedom,'' said Azad Jondyani, a member of the PUK. ''They had no choices. Here people are free to have an opinion, to protest.''
Among their demands, protesters called for the dissolution of party-affiliated militia forces, intelligence and espionage agencies. It is these militia forces that have been instrumental in ending the protests and inciting fear among those involved.
The Minister of the Peshmerga, or security forces, Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa, said the military had never been used in the interests of the ruling parties nor to threaten, harm or intimidate protesters. But others,www.ekurd.netsuch as 300 students from the University of Sulaimaniyah, disagree.
On April 19, in the final days of the protest campaign, government forces rounded up the hundreds of students from the university campus and took them by bus to a secluded location outside the city limits.
Students said for seven hours they were beaten, insulted and kept in the sun without food or water. Female students reported being threatened with rape and referred to as prostitutes.
Today, Sulaimaniyah is cloaked in an uneasy silence. Government forces still stand guard in the town square wielding guns.
''It is a nice lie to say we have democracy in Sulaimaniyah,'' said a protest committee member, Soran Omar, speaking at a secret location. He is in hiding after his home was raided twice and his car set on fire.
''If we have democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan, then democracy is killing and shooting in the street. Democracy is arresting intellectuals and holding them in prison. Democracy is led by murderers and run by government military. This democracy means those who complain, have their tongues cut out.''