ERBIL, Kurdistan-Iraq, Jan. 25 - Kamal Sayid
Qadir had just returned here from Austria in late
October when two trusted former students invited him
for coffee at the Hotel Avista.
For Mr. Qadir, the meeting held the promise of a
reunion of kindred spirits from Salahaddin
University where, as a faculty member a few years
back, he had clashed with administrators allied with
the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani. From Austria he
had written articles accusing Mr. Barzani's
all-powerful Kurdistan Democratic Party of
corruption while calling members of its intelligence
service, the Parastin, criminals and its chief — Mr.
Barzani's son — a "pimp."
But Mr. Qadir said he never made it home from the
hotel that night. Betrayed by his former students,
who unknown to him had joined the Parastin, he says
he was abducted after he left the hotel. He is now
imprisoned here, sentenced last month to 30 years
for defaming the Parastin and Kurdish political
leaders after a trial that he said had lasted 15
Dr Kamal Said Qadir, Austrian citizen, an
international legal expert, writer and human rights
His case, while extraordinary, is by no means
unique. Two journalists from Wasit Province in east
central Iraq face 10 years in prison for suggesting
that Iraqi judges kowtow to the American authorities
just as Saddam Hussein's courts rubber-stamped
edicts of the Baath Party. The journalists, Ayad
Mahmoud al-Tamimi and Ahmed Mutair Abbas, had also
accused the then-governor of Wasit of corruption and
labeled him a bastard, a grave insult here.
Taken together, the prosecutions indicate how much
remains at play in newly democratic Iraq. The nation
has made remarkable steps away from totalitarian
rule: the overthrow and prosecution of a genocidal
dictator, two national elections and the adoption of
a Constitution. But it remains to be seen how far
Iraq will ultimately travel toward true
In much of southern Iraq, for example, real power
increasingly lies with Shiite militias that serve
religious leaders and enforce a rule of strict
Islamic mores and second-class treatment of women.
Now, the prosecutions of journalists suggests that
the new Iraqi government is at another crossroads.
Will it revert to state-sanctioned intimidation of
the news media or allow the sort of free-flowing
exchange of ideas that flourish in newspapers, blogs
and other media in the Western world?
"These cases set a terrible precedent and are sure
to make any Iraqi journalist think twice before
writing about powerful political figures," said Joel
Campagna, senior program coordinator for the Middle
East and North Africa for the Committee to Protect
Journalists, a watchdog group in New York.
As with other nations newly liberated from
authoritarianism, Iraq is still testing the limits
of responsible free speech, and some of the
name-calling and rumor-mongering that goes on
clearly oversteps the boundaries. Many of Mr.
Qadir's criticisms exceeded what would be tolerated
in other Middle East countries, particularly his
assertions about the sexual proclivities of the
A number of Kurdish journalists who have called Mr.
Qadir's imprisonment outrageous say they are
nevertheless uncomfortable with some of his
writings, calling them offensive and reckless.
Indeed, Mr. Qadir said in a prison interview that he
had apologized for parts of articles he now says
contained improper personal insults. But he vowed to
continue to criticize official corruption, including
what he says are secret abductions by the police.
But the Iraqi authorities increasingly go beyond
merely responding to unfair or false claims, Mr.
Campagna and other observers say, using the courts
as an instrument of intimidation to discourage
reporting on corruption and abuses of power. Iraq,
he added, "is following the poor example of its
neighbors who routinely detain, criminally prosecute
or imprison reporters for their work."
For its part, the Kurdistan Democratic Party says
almost all Mr. Qadir's accusations are false. His
arrest came after he was served with a proper
warrant, said a senior official of the K.D.P. and
the Parastin, who asked that his name not be used
because he was not authorized to speak publicly
about the case. He said Mr. Qadir had been given a
fair trial and had not, as he has asserted, been
abused in prison, forced to sleep in his own
excrement, threatened with torture or denied food
and water. Massoud Barzani "has nothing against
him," the official added.
The Kurdish party tolerates reporting of official
corruption and supports narrowing defamation laws so
fewer types of articles might be subject to criminal
prosecution, the official said. But he also said
defamatory writings intended "as a political weapon"
should still be subject to prosecution. Mr. Qadir's
writings would fall in this category, he said.
Mr. Qadir's case has drawn international attention
and put enormous pressure on Kurdish leaders. The
senior official of the K.D.P., which controls
western Kurdistan, said that Mr. Qadir's sentence
would be reduced to one year and that his family
would be permitted to bail him out. The senior
official said a court would make the ruling in the
next few weeks.
But Mr. Qadir still could face serious criminal
jeopardy from complaints yet to be prosecuted, said
Ismael Khalil Shakeeb, the presiding criminal court
judge in Erbil and one of the judges who sentenced
him last month. "He has insulted many other people,"
Mr. Qadir, 48, credits a statement issued by the
United States over the Voice of America for possibly
saving his life. An American official in Baghdad
said Washington had discussed the case with Kurdish
officials. Delegations including Austrian officials
have paid prison visits, he says, adding pressure
that greatly improved his living conditions.
Kurdistan is, in most respects, the most westernized
and prosperous part of the new Iraq, having
experienced a decade or more of virtual independence
even before the American invasion. But writers here
face threats and arrest for running afoul of the
K.D.P., Mr. Qadir says.
"We have no freedom of the press," he said in an
interview conducted Friday afternoon in the Erbil
prison. "It's all arbitrary; they can arrest
anybody. I never thought I'd be a victim of the
Mr. Qadir's complaints about curbs on press freedoms
are supported by Rebin Ismael, a former senior
editor of a large Kurdish newspaper who now runs an
American aid organization in Erbil.
In Kurdistan, he says, it is not unusual for the
secret police to threaten or arrest journalists who
fail to toe the line of the K.D.P. More than a dozen
journalists have been arrested in recent years, he
says, but the cases are never reported on in
Kurdistan because other journalists fear saying
anything critical of the party.
"Generally, any journalists or writers not connected
to the party are under threats," Mr. Ismael said.
"If you write anything not in their interest, they
will arrest you or call your cellphone and threaten
He said he and his wife, a Kurdish reporter whose
articles have mocked the party, had not slept in
their house for nearly a month, having fled after
she received threatening calls.
The senior Kurdish party official described Mr.
Ismael as a credible and respected journalist but
took issue with his comments. Told the names of four
of the writers Mr. Ismael said had been arrested,
the official said the four had not been arrested but
had been called to "interviews" by the police.
He said he did not know how many other journalists
had submitted to such police interviews. He said
only one writer aside from Mr. Qadir had been sent
to prison in recent years.
Mr. Qadir, born and raised in Kurdistan, is now a
citizen of Austria, where he studied and lived until
1991, when Kurdistan was effectively liberated after
the Persian Gulf war. He returned to teach law and
political science at Salahaddin University but
clashed with the administration as he lectured
students about K.D.P. abuses, he said. Nepotism and
graft are still rampant today, he said.
He left the university a few years ago, he said, and
returned to Austria, where he continued to write
about Kurdistan for Internet publications, adopting
a strident and disparaging tone that pushed his
criticism well past what anyone living here would
contemplate. He accused K.D.P. officials of
siphoning public funds and spying for the K.G.B. and
the Israeli Mossad, and he wrote that one Barzani
clan member was homosexual and another had had
trysts with Russian women.
He say he regrets calling Massur Barzani, the
Kurdish leader's son, a pimp. But he argues that the
Parastin often use prostitutes to gather
The senior K.D.P. official said the criticism of the
Parastin and the personal attacks on the Barzanis
were all false. But he admitted he did not know
whether the Parastin used prostitutes to aid
If freed and allowed to stay in Kurdistan, Mr. Qadir
says he will continue to criticize what he
characterizes as the police-state atmosphere in
Kurdistan. "I never knew Kurdistan was in this
shape, where people get abducted by the secret
police," he said.