In Iraqi Kurdistan, security has been increasingly tight since the extremist group known as the Islamic State took control of the nearby city of Mosul. The semi-autonomous region, which has its own military and parliament, has been protecting its borders and in the capital, Erbil, there are many more armed men, security cameras and checkpoints.
In this atmosphere, it is essential that the local security forces be seen as doing their job efficiently. This is part of the reason why they often publish pictures of the criminals they have apprehended after any violent event.
Even though most locals support those working in the security forces unequivocally, they don’t always believe the hype. Locals are well aware that if the guilty parties are not found, that others from among the prisoner population may be paraded in the media, as evidence that the security forces are doing their job.
Even if local audiences suspect they are being duped, it is almost impossible to tell whether the right prisoner is being shown off. Any arrests – particularly in cases of terrorism – are usually made in secrecy and nothing is announced, unless the security forces themselves make the announcement.
However, there is another statement around, featuring the same prisoner. But this one is from March 2014.
For example, a few days after the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group attacked locations in the Iraqi Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk, the Kurdistan Region Security Council, which describes itself as overseeing the “security and intelligence community” in the region, announced that a number of the participants in the IS raid had been captured.
Some of the prisoners were filmed, making a confession.
In one of the videos an individual named Ahmad Hussein Abdul-Rahman al-Azzi makes a confession. In the filmed confession, al-Azzi says that he was originally a resident of Askari, a neighbourhood in Kirkuk, and that he was drafted into the IS group in 2016 by his brother, Mohammed. “I cooperated with the IS militants in the attack on Kirkuk and I was arrested by security forces on October 22, 2016,” the man says.
However, there is also another statement around, featuring the same prisoner, apparently arrested due to a very similar crime. But this one is from March 2014.
In the 2014 statement, released by the security forces working under the Iraqi Kurdish political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, authorities said that al-Azzi and his brother, Mohammed, were arrested in the Zawraa neighbourhood in Kirkuk for planning a “terrorist attack” and for bringing weapons and explosives into the city. The IS group isn’t mentioned by name in this statement most likely because at that stage, it wasn’t prominent in Iraq.
Comparing the pictures that came with the 2014 statement and the video of the 2016 confession, it appears that the criminal is the same man in both cases. Although the still picture has al-Azzi’s eyes hidden, the shape of his face, nose, eyebrows and ears are the same and tellingly, both men have a birthmark in the same place, under the lower lip.
The names are most likely the same too. The 2014 statement describes al-Azzi using the initials of his first name – A.H.A – while the video spells the name out completely: Ahmad Hussein Abdul-Rahman al-Azzi. In both incidents, al-Azzi was arrested with his brother, a man named Mohammed.
Although the details and the photographic evidence match up and appear to indicate that the local security forces have trotted out a prisoner they already had, just to make themselves look good, it is hard to confirm.
There is barely any information on al-Azzi after his 2014 arrest. Additionally in this time of heightened security and ongoing tension, this is a very sensitive subject. Nobody wanted to go on the record about al-Azzi.
A lawyer that NIQASH spoke with, on condition of anonymity, says that al-Azzi was seen in jail just four months ago. The Kirkuk attacks happened two months ago.
The video, supplied by Iraqi Kurdish security forces, featuring the taped confessions.
Although they did not respond to initial requests for comment, a week after this story was published the security forces e-mailed a statement to NIQASH*. They say that the man in question - Ahmad Hussein Abdul-Rahman al-Azzi - was arrested in March 2014 after he was found to be in possession of weapons and ammunition. He was later released after he claimed the weapons belonged to his brother, who remained at large.
"Upon release al-Azzi made contact again with Mohammed," the statement from the Kurdistan Region Security Council said. "The hasty release of criminals and terrorists remains a key problem for Kirkuk's security services. Tens of individuals have made contact again with terrorists organizations." The statement from the Security Council can be read here and other information e-mailed by the office follows below.
A mediator who was trying to arrange an interview with al-Azzi’s family told NIQASH that nobody was willing to talk about the arrest because of the delicate nature of the topic and fear of repercussions. Al-Azzi is a member of the Azza tribe, a smaller Sunni Muslim clan living south of Kirkuk.
“A lot of people are being arrested and often their families have no idea why they were arrested or the charges against them,” says Hatim al-Taie, a member of the Arab Political Council in Kirkuk, a mostly Sunni Muslim body formed to deal with local politics after the IS group has been driven out. “This happens all the time.”
“In many cases people are arrested on terrorism charges and then released,” said another Sunni Muslim, Arab politician, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the issue. “In some cases, they are simply substituted for another culprit and they confess to other attacks. We dare not interfere in these cases, even if we know the person arrested is innocent, because we may become targets too.”
In Iraqi Kurdish-controlled areas, where Iraqi Arabs are also present, there have been plenty of complaints about racism and prejudice against Arabs. During the security crisis sparked by the IS group, which bases its harsh ideology on extremist versions of Sunni Islam, these tensions have worsened.
Another aspect that ties into cases like al-Azzi’s is the competition between different security divisions in Iraqi Kurdistan after any kind of attack. Some leading local politicians base their popularity on their ability to be “strong leaders” and to protect the people in their areas. This sees different security forces competing to be seen as the most valiant protectors of a city. In this case, the video was released by the KDP even though they are not in control of this area - their political rivals, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, are. Locals see video like this as a way for the KDP to show up the PUK in Kirkuk.
“There are plenty of reasons as to why a scenario like this could be created,” explains Kamran Barwari, a professor of political science at the University of Dohuk, who has been associated with the Change movement in the past. “The security forces want to be more popular with civilians and to intimidate their enemies. In some cases it is even because they want to keep people distracted, so they don’t dwell on more important but less interesting topics.”
It is a tactic used elsewhere in the Middle East too, Barwari adds.
The Human Rights Committee of the Iraqi Kurdish government often receives complaints from the victims in these kinds of scenarios, confirms MP Beeston Faeq, a member of the committee who belongs to the Change movement.
“We have had complaints from people who say the security forces threaten to frame them if they don’t confess,” Faeq told NIQASH and gave the 2013 murder of Kawa Garmyani, a local journalist reporting on corruption, as an example. “His family really doubts that the person who is in custody is the person who actually killed Kawa.”
The same doubts linger in the case of another murdered journalist, Sardasht Osman, who was killed in 2010.
Although he had not heard of any cases where detainees were forced to confess to crimes they did not commit, Diya Butros, the head of the Independent Commission for Human Rights in Iraqi Kurdistan, said that he couldn’t rule it out.
“Things like that could happen,” Butros conceded. “We can’t deny there are possibilities they might happen. But we don’t interfere during ongoing investigations; our work starts once the court has made a decision.”
*This story has been updated to include an e-mailed statement from the Kurdistan Region Security Council, sent to NIQASH on 29 Dec.