ERBIL (Reuters) â€” A Kurdish writer was sentenced to 1-1/2 years in prison on Sunday for defaming Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, in a case that has raised questions about the freedom of the press in postwar Iraq. Kamal Karim, an Iraqi-born Kurd with Austrian citizenship, was originally sentenced to 30 years in jail for defaming Barzani but was retried.
“I swear by God I am not guilty. I am not satisfied with this verdict. I am a victim,” Karim said after the sentence was pronounced.
The judge said the court had been lenient.
“This sentence is fair and it is proportionate to the charges against him,” Faridoun Abdullah told Reuters.
“We helped him. We took into consideration that he is an academic and has served in the education field. So we sentenced him to a year-and-a-half. Otherwise we would have sentenced him to five years.” Karim was convicted by a state security court in Erbil after an hour-long trial on December 19 on charges of defaming Barzani and public institutions. He was arrested in October.
Karim had published articles on a Kurdish website accusing Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of corruption and abuse of power.
European president Austria has called for Karim’s release.
Barzani â€” also president of the Kurdistan region â€” and other Kurdish leaders promised a new era of democracy after 2003’s US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.
Proud over human rights
The Kurdish north has since prided itself on having a better human rights record than elsewhere in Iraq, where sectarian violence has raised fears of civil war.
“This court is unfair. I want a fair trial,” said Karim before he was sentenced.
The writer was brought to court in December for what he was told would be a procedural hearing, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said, basing its account on an e- mail written by Karim.
When he arrived at the court in Erbil, he was told he was on trial. He had only five minutes to confer with a defence lawyer and the trial lasted just one hour, the CPJ said.
“Everything is possible in the courts of Kurdistan and the law is not applied in the right way,” said Samir Salim of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, which faced riots and attacks after it broke from the alliance that includes Barzani’s KDP.
On March 17, security forces working for the other main Kurdish party, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, arrested Hawez Hawezi, a high school teacher who also writes.
He was charged with defaming the Kurdistan regional government after an article he wrote on corruption appeared in the Hawlati newspaper, an editor at the paper, who asked not to be named, said on Sunday.
Hawezi was released on bail and is awaiting trial. An editor at Hawlati said Hawezi had been beaten while being driven to detention in Suleimaniyah.
“We call on the authorities to dismiss this case at once. Rather than pursue a journalist for doing his job the Kurdish authorities would do well to investigate those who assaulted our colleague Hawez Hawezi,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper.
“Such arbitrary and heavy-handed treatment of the press by Kurdish authorities shows that their reputation for tolerance of free media is undeserved.”