Journalist Guhdar Zebari awaits trial for third successive case

Photo of journalist Guhdar Muhammad Zebari before his arrest. Zebari's Facebook account

By Ammar Aziz

The journalist Guhdar Zebari's family and defense lawyers announced that the court decided to try Guhdar for the third time and he will not be released, eight days after the end of his second sentence, after the Iraqi Kurdistan Region President IKRP decided to reduce the sentence by 60%.

Guhdar and four other activists and journalists were sentenced on February 16, 2021 by the Erbil Criminal Court to six years in prison after being accused of "espionage, coup attempt and riot".

Before fully serving his sentence in March 2023, Guhdar was sentenced to five months in prison on the background of another case. Under the pretext that the emblem of his vehicle had been changed without official approval when arrested.

Revink Yassin, a member of the Badinan journalists and activists defense team, told KirkukNow, “A new case has been filed against Guhdar Zebari related to carrying an unlicensed weapon, and the case has been referred to a special court.”

"The date of the trial has not been set yet, all there is that Guhdar will be tried for the third time in three different cases."

Zeidan, Guhdar Zebari's brother, told KirkukNow, "The charges are baseless. This is a great injustice, but in the end, truth will prevail."

The opening of the case comes at a time when Guhdar Zebari was scheduled to be released last Wednesday, August 16, from the Erbil Rehabilitation Facility, but he was transferred to the Erbil Asayish (Security) Directorate.

Badinan detainees are victims of a wave of arrests carried out by the Kurdish security forces Asayish since June 2020 in response to a series of major protests against delay in salaries of state employees, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s KRG handling of the economic crisis resulting from disputes with Baghdad over oil production, export and corruption, and reached its peak under the Covid-19 pandemic.

The freelance reporters Zebari and Sherwan Sherwani, along with civic activists Ayaz Karam, Hariwan Essa & Shivan Sa'id were arrested in 2020 and convicted guilty of disturbing national security of Iraqi Kurdistan Region IKR by Erbil criminal court on February 16, 2021, for six years in prison among over 80 detainees of Badinan (Duhok province).

Sherwani and Zebari are still in prison. Erbil court of the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan Region IKR end of last June has sentenced Sherwani to four years in prison on charges of fraud. Zebari awaits next trail though no details about whereabouts of the new case: date of trial and party filed lawsuit against him.

The new case

The new case relates to “possession of an unlicensed weapon,” during his arrest in October 2021.

"During his arrest at our sister's, they claimed that they had seized an unlicensed weapon, which was a hunting rifle. This rifle was not actually owned by Guhdar, but rather belonged to our grandfather. It was not found in our house, but in the house of one of our sisters," Zaidan said.

"In this case, he was fined for 100,000 dinars.”

Basdar Hasan, another member of Guhdar's defense team, earlier said that his relatives had mentioned that Guhdar was tried because of this case, "We also heard about that, but we did not see any official letter related to fining him for this case."

Local and international media development organizations express their grave concern that that press freedom is increasingly under threat in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

The Independent commission for human rights in Kurdistan region recorded arrest of 300 people from August to October 2020 for "organization of protests and disorder mainly in Duhok northern province.”

The KRG has sent over 50 activists and journalists to court in 2020 and 2021 and some of the cases are still pending at court awaiting trial.

Guhdar Zebari’s third case: What next?

Regarding the third case of "unlicensed carrying of weapons", legal experts and lawyers of the case say that there are two legal texts, namely Article 15 of the Weapons Law in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region IKR issued in 2022, and Article 21 of the Weapons Law No. 16 of 1993 issued by the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s Parliament.

Under Article 15, the penalty for possessing or selling a firearm or equipment without a license is imprisonment for a period of no less than one year and no more than three years, with financial penalties of no less than two million Iraqi dinars IQD ($1,315) and no more than five million IQD.

Firearms, according to the law, are pistols, automatic rifles, rapid-fire weapons, while equipment includes bullets and bullets used in firearms and any of their parts.

However, according to Article 21 of the Weapons Law No. 16 of 1993, whoever possesses, repairs, or carries firearms or their ammunition without a permit from the issuing authority shall be punished by imprisonment for a period of no less than one year and a fine of no more than two thousand dinars and no less than one thousand dinars (USD50 at that time).

The same article states, "The penalty shall be life imprisonment for anyone who smuggles military weapons, parts or equipment with the intent of spreading terrorism, disturbing public security, or supporting any rebellion against the regional government."

The charges against Guhdar in the new case date back to before the Arms Law of 2022 was passed.

In this case, Latif Mustafa, a legal expert and retired judge, says, “According to Article 2 of the Penal Code No. 111 of 1969, we have a law to choose the best for the accused, meaning that if a new law is issued that is in the interest of the accused, the new law that is in his interest will be implemented.”

Which law is in the interest of Guhdar Zebari?

Mustafa, who reviewed the two laws, believes that the new law is more in favor of Guhdar Zebari, because “Article 21 of the Arms Law of 1993 stipulates that whoever carries firearms shall be punished by imprisonment for a period of no less than one year.”

However, he explained that "in the new law, the highest authority was not specified and the matter was left to the judge, and legal experts know that if the higher authority does not specify the term of imprisonment, the judge can impose the maximum penalty, which is five years' imprisonment," he added

"Under this law, it is possible for the accused to be released on bail after appearing before the judge."

And he stressed that "since the uprising - in 1991 - no suspect has been arrested solely for possessing or carrying an unlicensed weapon."

With regard to the new law, Latif said, "In this law, the penalty of imprisonment was reduced from one year to three years, and based on that, the ruling of carrying an unlicensed weapon falls under the provisions of Article 110 of the amended Code of Criminal Procedure of 1971, and the judge is supposed to release him."

In the event that it turns out that the weapon is a hunting rifle, as the relatives of Guhdar say, Mustafa said, “The new law did not mention the hunting rifle, meaning that the law does not include hunting rifles and does not require carrying a license.” However, he said that “the old law mentioned the hunting rifle among the firearms.”

Mustafa explained, "The Second Sulaymaniyah Criminal Court previously decided, in the capacity of cassation, that the hunting rifle does not fall within the framework of the law."

Despite having served two sentences, Guhdar is still imprisoned in the Asayish prison, and his brother Zaidan says, "Before completing his sentence, he told me that if I was not released, I would go on a hunger strike. According to our information, he declared a hunger strike and his health condition is not good."

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