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 Text Messages Proliferate as Threats in Iraqi Kurdistan

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Text Messages Proliferate as Threats in Iraqi Kurdistan  27.4.2011
By Tim Arango - The NY Times







Iraqi Kurdish security apparatus threat activists and protesters with text messages. Text message sent to Dr. Pishtewan Abdullah "If you come back to Erbil you will not see the blue sky again."

April 27, 2011


BAGHDAD/ERBIL, —  When he returned to his native Kurdistan in February to join the flickering of a protest movement, Dr. Pishtewan Abdullah, a hematologist who lives in Australia but also carries an Iraqi passport, suspected that the demonstrators might face harsh treatment from the Kurdish authorities. At several protests during the last two months security forces have opened fire, and an estimated 10 people have been killed and dozens wounded, according to human rights activists.

What Dr. Abdullah did not anticipate, though, was a barrage of one of this country’s more peculiar menaces: death threats by text message.

“I’ve been getting heaps of them,” he said recently in an interview in Baghdad, where he had fled to from the north after several kidnapping attempts. “Every single day.”

He estimated that he had received nearly 300 such threats since late February. They usually read, he said, “We are going to kill that, or we are going to burn that. Very rude language.”

One of the few that can be printed read, “If you come back to Erbil you will not see the blue sky again.”                               

For the past two months thousands of protesters are gathering daily in Sulaimaniyah and other parts of Kurdistan against corruption and the lording over Kurdistan region by two main parties KDP and PUK. Kurdish protestors demand the ouster of the Kurdistan government KRG and president Massoud Barzani, calling for improving services and living conditions and fighting corruption.
Digital media have amplified the young voices of democracy ringing around the Middle East, but the flip side here is that the authorities and insurgents alike are also adept at using technology, particularly cellphones, largely unavailable here before the 2003 American invasion, as part of their arsenals of intimidation.

Actual violence may have declined substantially since the worst days of the war, but a culture of fear and intimidation still prevails.

It has been on display during the intermittent protests that have rippled across Iraq in the wake of the regional uprisings. Death threats delivered by text message have become such a common experience across the spectrum of Iraq’s public-minded professions —lawyers, journalists, activists and government officials — that the two mobile phone companies, Zain and Asia Cell, have arrangements with the police and courts to investigate them.

“There is a great deal of cooperation between the security forces, the Iraqi judiciary and Zain with exchanging information,” said Mazin al-Asadi, a representative for Zain.

Yet most of the threats are untraceable, having been sent from throw-away phones and SIM cards bought on the black market.

“It’s impossible to count them,” said Abed al-Sattar al-Bairaqdar, the spokesman for Iraq’s Supreme Court.

Interviews with Iraqis suggest that the phenomenon cuts across all strata of society, but journalists in particular have been subject to such tactics, especially during the protests. And recent reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International about abuses by security forces have mentioned text-messaged death threats.

“It’s something we’ve noticed for a while now, and it’s pervasive throughout Iraq,” said Samer Muscati, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch who has recently visited Iraq. “But it seems it’s getting worse. Just about every protest organizer we’ve spoken with, and journalists, too, are getting these threats by phone and text.”

Mr. Muscati said it was common for journalists in Iraq to appear on television speaking about a controversial subject like corruption, and then, after the show, “they are barraged by these messages.”

Amnesty International, for example, reported that numerous journalists in the Kurdish region had received such messages, which the organization believes came from security officials who have taken part in attacks on news organizations. One, a correspondent for the satellite television channel KNN,www.ekurd.netaffiliated with the Kurdish opposition party Gorran, received a text message after reporting on work that Amnesty International has been doing in Iraq. The message told the reporter to stop his work. “Otherwise, the outcome will be disastrous,” the message read.

In the case of Dr. Abdullah, Kair al-Dain, the deputy police chief in Erbil, said he was aware of the doctor’s claims, but he would not comment more beyond saying that he had “no idea” whether Dr. Abdullah had indeed received intimidating messages.

The messages come in three basic varieties. Some are meant to intimidate, as in the case of Dr. Abdullah, who suspects that they came from the security officials who confiscated his cellphone when he was briefly imprisoned.

“They are very advanced in technology,” Dr. Abdullah said. “When you try to call the numbers, they are just disconnected.”

Yassir al-Jubori, 28, a journalist in Diyala, received a text message in February that read, “Your tongue has become too big, and it is time to cut it off.” He was told to quit his job.

“I remained for a few days in my house to be away from the insurgents,” Mr. Jubori said. “Day by day I got used to it and resumed my job, because I believe in fate.”

Other messages are mechanisms of blackmail and part of the kidnapping-for-ransom business that thrives here. Several of those interviewed said they received messages demanding payments to stay alive. One businessman in Kirkuk, who said he was kidnapped two years ago by the Sunni insurgent group Ansar al-Sunna because he had worked with the American military, recently received a text threat by the same group demanding $50,000.

“I didn’t pay them because the security situation has gotten better,” said the businessman, Faisal Hassan Khalaf. But he said he did not disregard the threat entirely. “I had to move away and change my vehicles because they can kill me whenever they want to. But at the same time, I can’t keep paying ransoms.”

At other times, the messages are tools of sectarian aggression.

Muhammed Abdul Naser, a 25-year-old student in Adhamiya, a Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad, once received a text that read: “We are the killers from the Mahdi Army. We know that you live close to the fish market. We will get you. We will get you.”

In one of the few instances in which the interviewees said the message was successfully traced, Mr. Naser said the cellphone company was able to locate the sender, who he said was indeed a member of the Mahdi Army, the now-disbanded Shiite militia loyal to the radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

“I knew some people that were with the Mahdi Army,” Mr. Naser said, “and they went to him and asked him to leave me alone.”

In recent days, Dr. Abdullah said the Kurdish authorities demanded three things of him: that he stay off Facebook, refrain from news media interviews and leave Erbil.

He agreed only to the final demand — to protect his family members who live in Erbil — and spoke recently at a cafe in Baghdad on the evening before he left the country. He had just gotten a new cellphone, and was enjoying a respite from the steady flow of menacing words.

Dr. Abdullah said he was leaving the country for only a few weeks. “I’m not going to give up,” he said.

Omar al-Jawoshy contributed reporting from Baghdad, and employees of The New York Times from Baghdad, Kirkuk and Diyala, Iraq.

Dr Pishtewan ‘Abdullah, an Iraqi Kurdish medical doctor with an Australian passport and resident of Australia, was visiting Kurdistan in February when he was arrested and tortured in Erbil. On 25 February, he was wearing a shirt over a T-shirt with “no to corruption, yes to social justice” written on the front and “the demands of people should not be answered by bullets” on the back. In Erbil’s main square he took off his shirt to expose the T-shirt. Two young men approached him and asked him to put his shirt back on. He refused. Around 15 people then attacked him from behind, punching and kicking him while he was on the ground. He told Amnesty International:

“They put the shirt on my face and tied my hands behind my back. There were two police cars and they did not intervene. The [attackers] put me in car and drove away. After 10 minutes drive we stopped outside the Asayish Gishti building. There were many Asayish officers and they started kicking me and beating me. I was taken to a small room. Every five minutes two or three Asayish officers came to the room and beat me. I was kicked and punched for about four hours. There was blood coming from my nose, ears, arms, back, thighs, my right eye. Every five minutes they would have a break and then two different officers would replace them… They were swearing at me, swearing at my wife and kids and Goran…” Dr Pishtewan spent three days in the Asayish Gishti building before being transferred to a police station, where he was held for 24 hours before being released. He told Amnesty International that he did not lodge a complaint: “I didn’t complain. Complain to whom? The Asayish is everything. The KDP is everything.”  Amnesty.org

 

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