The powerful mayor of one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s biggest cities, Sulaymaniyah, died this week. Mayor Zana Mohammed Saleh apparently hanged himself while in solitary confinement in a Sulaymaniyah facility.
The facility was run by the Asayish, who are more a kind of Kurdish secret police or intelligence service than the civilian police or the Kurdish military; the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan has its own courts, constitution and military, operating independently of the Iraqi government in Baghdad.
And as news of the mayor’s death leaked out, the Asayish were quick to issue a statement saying that the mayor, described by many as the second most powerful man in Sulaymaniyah, had hanged himself. But the mayor’s family and relatives have been equally quick to dispute this version of events.
Saleh had been arrested on April 8 on charges of corruption. He was accused of accepting bribes, with the state prosecutor saying the charges involved “illegal transactions related to around 2,000 acres of land surrounding Sulaymaniyah city” that was worth around US$400 million.
The charges actually date back to 2006. Three other officials working in state institutions as well as a Sulaymaniyah businessman were also arrested. And the mayor was to make his first appearance in court on April 8. During that first hearing, an arrest warrant was issued for Saleh.
However because the mayor’s relatives and supporters surrounded the court house – news agencies estimated that there were around 300 people – the hearing was postponed. According to NIQASH’s information, Saleh denied all charges against him.
Then, only six days after his arrest, the mayor was dead. An official statement issued by the Asayish simply said that: “Saleh hanged himself in his cell”.
“Saleh was being held in solitary confinement in a cell which contained a refrigerator and he used the electric cord to hang himself,” a source inside the security services, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained to NIQASH.
However these statements were rejected out of hand by Saleh’s relatives; they believe Saleh was murdered in order to stop the corruption case, involving the multi-million dollar property, which could have implicated other high ranking local officials.
Saleh’s lawyer, Sattar Khwarham, said that his client’s death might well lead to the case being closed. However others suggested the opposite, saying that the file would most likely remain open and might lead to all kinds of unsavoury discoveries – unless, of course, the courts themselves were pressured to drop the case.
Saleh’s wife visited her husband in prison on the same day as his death. She said far from being suicidal, he was in good psychological health. “He was very optimistic and told me that he would be out of prison shortly,” Saleh’s wife told media a day after he died.
Saleh’s relatives also believe he was tortured in prison and that they saw signs of this on his corpse. NIQASH viewed a video tape of the corpse made by forensic doctors but on the parts of Saleh’s body that were visible in the film – face, shoulders, hands and some of his abdomen – there were no signs of torture visible.
Saleh’s relatives also say that a high ranking official from inside the security forces visited Saleh in prison and asked him to retract the statements and testimony he had made previously in the case, mainly because it implicated other officials. They say this official also threatened Saleh. The mayor’s family say they plan to press charges against the official they believe visited Saleh and also against the Asayish.
In response to the uproar about the mayor’s death, which has included crowds of relatives and supporters demonstrating outside the morgue, a parliamentary committee was created to further investigate the alleged suicide.
“Our visit to the cell [where Saleh was being held] made us doubtful about the cause of death,” Kurdish MP, Shirzad Hafez, who is on that committee, said immediately. But Hafez refused to go any further: “We must await the results of the investigation,” he concluded.
The Asayish did not have anything further to add to the discussion officially either, saying that they too were awaiting results of the investigation into the mayor’s death. The coroner’ report has not been published yet.
Saleh’s wife was one of the only locals giving statements this week. As she stood beside her husband’s grave, she told the assembled media: “God will punish those who murdered my husband. I have many secrets and I will reveal them all at the appropriate time”.
And at the moment, as a number of investigations into Saleh’s death are launched, it would appear that, far from closing this corruption case, the mayor’s demise – whether he was murdered or whether he died by his own hand – may well open up a whole new chapter on official corruption in Iraqi Kurdistan.