On October 26, 2005, security officers associated with Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) detained Kurdish writer and Austrian citizen Kamal Sayid Qadir in Erbil, northern Iraq. Qadir had angered Barzani with several articles describing corruption and nepotism in his administration of the Kurdistan Regional Government.[1] Barzani's militia subsequently held Qadir for weeks without charge and without access to an attorney or his family.

On November 9, International PEN, a London-based press freedom advocacy organization, wrote to Barzani. The KDP office in London answered that the Kurdish government had arrested Qadir for defamation of "certain prominent elected official politicians."[2] After a one-hour trial, a Kurdish court convicted and sentenced Qadir to 30 years in prison. The Committee to Protect Journalists said that Qadir had only five minutes to confer with a court-appointed defense attorney before trial and sentence.[3]

On January 7, 2006, Masrour Barzani, son of Masoud and head of KDP intelligence, wrote that, "People should not libel and accuse others just because they want to," but added that "no one in our family has filed any complaints." However, Masrour said that others "have complained and had him [Qadir] arrested by the order of the court." [4] The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) subsequently released a press statement saying that Qadir had been charged with defamation of public institutions.[5] Voice of America radio, in a January 6 editorial "reflecting the views of the U.S. government," strongly condemned Qadir's detention.[6] In response to the outcry, the KRG has said it will release and retry Qadir.

Iraqi Kurdistan is at a political turning point. Prior to the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's government, Kurds complained they suffered from two embargoes: United Nations' sanctions on Iraq, and the Iraqi government's own blockade of the recalcitrant region. After liberation, aid money and optimism flooded the region. Investment grew.[7] So, too, did corruption.

The Barzani family has accumulated up to US$2 billion since Masoud Barzani returned to the region from exile in 1991.[8] After Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported on Iraqi Kurdish corruption,[9] its reporter received death threats.[10] While the Barzani family disputes such claims,[11] Iraqi Kurdish finances remain opaque, and Barzani family interests are the subject of Kurdish businessmen's complaints.

Democracy has faltered. While Kurdistan Democratic Party officials say that their region is "one of the few examples of democracy in the Middle East,"[12] independent human rights groups disagree. An August 2004 Human Rights Watch report chastised the Kurdish government for ethnic cleansing.[13] Foreigners visiting Erbil prisons privately report individuals incarcerated after failing to pay kickbacks to or accept ghost partnerships with Barzani family members. Amnesty International chronicles political arrests.[14] There is decreasing tolerance for dissent. Prior to the December 15, 2005 Iraqi elections, a Kurdistan Democratic Party mob sacked offices of a rival political party. KDP gunmen assassinated the opposition candidate after storming his office.[15] Barzani promotes a personality cult, and young Kurds whisper privately that he is becoming a new Saddam.

Against this backdrop came Qadir's bold reporting. His arrest sparked outrage among a broad swath of Kurdish society. Iraqi Kurdish poet Kamal Mirawdeli wrote, "Masoud Barzani makes a fateful mistake if he thinks that by his illegal and Saddam-style abduction and imprisonment [he will silence] the increasing number of courageous Kurdish intellectuals and writers who are raising their voices louder and louder against a history of criminality, corruption, and treachery."[16]

Qadir's imprisonment came a day after President George W. Bush received Barzani in the White House, calling the Kurdish leader, "a man of courage … a man who has stood up to a tyrant."[17] Such words might be better applied to Qadir.

Michael Rubin is editor of the Middle East Quarterly and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

[1] Dylan Alan, "The Arrest of Dr. Kamal Sayid Qadir Emerges as a Key Test of KRG," KurdishMedia.com, Dec. 28, 2005.
[2] Cathy McCann, "Iraq: Writer Kamal Sayid Qadir Detained Incommunicado," International PEN, Dec. 16, 2005.
[3] "CPJ protests 30-year jail term for Kurdish writer on defamation conviction," Committee to Protect Journalists, news alert, Jan. 11, 2006.
[4] E-mail from Masrour Barzani to Michael Rubin, Jan. 7, 2006.
[5] "Legal Case Regarding Dr. Kamal Sayid Qadir," Kurdistan Regional Government, Council of Ministers, Jan. 9, 2006.
[6] "K-D-P Critic Jailed in Iraq," Voice of America News, Jan. 6, 2006.
[7] The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 18, 2005.
[8] The Daily Star (Beirut), Nov. 18, 2005.
[9] Kyle Madigan, "Corruption Restricts Development in Iraqi Kurdistan," Iraq Report, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), May 2, 2005.
[10] Conversation with RFE/RL official, Sept. 9, 2005.
[11] E-mail from Masrour Barzani to Michael Rubin, Nov. 18, 2005.
[12] Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, "Iraqi Kurdistan: Government Reacts on Corruption Allegation," Kurdistan Regional Government. May 1, 2005.
[13] Claims in Conflict: Reversing Ethnic Cleansing in Northern Iraq, Human Rights Watch, Aug. 2004.
[14] See, for example, "Iraq," Amnesty International Report 2003 (New York: Amnesty International), accessed Jan. 6, 2006.
[15] The Washington Post, Dec. 8, 2005.
[16] Kamal Mirawdeli, "Dr. Kamal Said Qadir Is Fighting for Truth and Human Dignity," Kurdistan Referendum Movement, Nov. 4, 2005.
[17] News release, White House, Oct. 25, 2005.