Sulaymaniyah's courthouse in Iraqi Kurdistan. (photo: Panoramio)
On New Year’s Eve in the district of Bakhtiari, in Iraqi Kurdistan, there was gunfire at local lawyer Omar Tawfik’s house. But this hail of bullets was not celebratory. Tawfik believes he was targeted by unknown assailants and blames those who previously threatened him.
Tawfik received these threats because he was involved in a complex court case, that started in 2012 but has yet to be resolved, around corruption involving land sales and senior politicians and administrators. The case saw the arrest of the then-mayor of Sulaymaniyah, Zana Hama Salih, who died in mysterious circumstances while in custody.
I know the courts cannot do anything against the powerful people in Kurdistan and I know that if I continue to pursue this my life would be in real danger.
Tawfik says he knew he would be threatened as a result of this case – even though he hasn’t been able to make much difference, he says.
The fact that those working in the legal profession are threatened is nothing new in Iraqi Kurdistan. However recently the frequency of the threats and attacks seems to have increased.
Last year, many local lawyers said at one time or another, that they were threatened. But not many of them want to chase those who harass them nor do they like disclosing the details of the threats. This is a worldwide phenomenon – lawyers are often threatened but they don’t often report the threats to the police.
In fact, details released by the Kurdistan Bar Association say that out of their 9,000 or so members, only 7 were threatened last year.
“Most of those threats came through text messages or phone calls,” says Bakhtiyar Haider, the head of the Bar Association. Haider says there is not much his organization can do about the harassment; they issue statements on the topic regularly, he says.
The police can only handle the cases where lawyers are threatened like any other cases, says Hogir Aziz, the spokesperson for the Erbil police. “When any person is threatened, we use the same procedures, regardless of the position of that person.”
Another local lawyer Younis Rawi says he’s been threatened plenty of times. “Most lawyers have,” he confirms. It is the nature of the work, he concedes.
Last year a well-known lawyer in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil, Asso Hashem, was kidnapped. He says it was because of his involvement in a case involving a clothing and textiles dealer who became bankrupt.
His client asked the lawyer to bring him a cheque from the bank worth several hundred dollars but while he was leaving the bank, he was kidnapped. “They wanted to know where my client was but in the end, they released me and only took the bank cheque,” Hashem says.
Hashem believes somebody with military connections became involved in the case. After he was attacked, he filed a complaint with the local police but then later withdrew it. “I know the courts cannot do anything against the powerful people in Kurdistan and I know that if I continue to pursue this my life would be in real danger,” Hashem explained why he decided against taking his complaint any further.
“The problem in Kurdistan is that if a person becomes a defence attorney and if you get involved in any kind of corruption lawsuit, then the authorities see you as the enemy,” Hashem argues.