When word comes out that senior officials from the semi-autonomous, northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan are making international visits, particularly to Europe, a group of guerrilla activists swing into action.
Together with his co-conspirators, Kader Nader, a Kurdish activist in Sweden, informs other ex-pat Kurds living in the countries where the Iraqi Kurdish politicians will visit. “We needed to find new and more effective ways of protesting against corrupt officials,” Nader explains.
These people are not activists. Their only activity is vandalism and scandal and it is disgusting.
Up until now, popular protests and demonstrations in Iraqi Kurdistan don’t seem to have any impact on the ruling class, Nader argues. So instead, Nader and his friends want to try to confront the politicians directly, when they are visiting other countries. “It is only then that they start to understand how a democracy should work,” he says.
The protestors find out where and when they could get public access to the Iraqi Kurdish politicians and then they ambush them with accusations of corruption and even insults. The politicians’ responses are filmed on mobile phones and then posted on social media.
For example, the governor of Erbil, Nawzat Hadi, was recently in Brussels, Belgium, attending a conference on alternative energies. He was approached by a lone man and then berated for the corrupt political practices of his party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP. The man also filmed the event and the resulting video was widely commented upon, on social media. Some of the commenters liked it and thought it was a novel way of protesting. Others, including the authorities in Erbil, said it was unacceptable and described it as politically motivated slander. They also pointed out that the video’s maker had connections to a local opposition party, the Change movement.
In another similar video, another activist confronted Faridon Abdulqadir, a senior member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, in Germany. The politician was there while the referendum on Kurdish independence in Iraq was being held last September. Abdulqadir was a supporter of the referendum, which was seen as controversial by many, and the activist accused the politician of corruption and of being part of the problem with the ruling elites of Iraqi Kurdistan.
One of the first videos was made in 2015 when four activists chanted slogans in front of the Swedish parliament while Falah Mustafa, who heads Iraqi Kurdistan's version of a ministry of foreign affairs, was visiting. They carried pictures of three assassinated Kurdish journalists.
And late last year, similar action took place in Germany outside the offices where the Iraqi Kurdish prime minister Nechirvan Barzani and his deputy were meeting German politicians. Security prevented them from getting any closer or filming a video like the one featuring the Erbil governor.
Kurdish ex-pats often like to take selfies of themselves with these senior, visiting politicians, one of the activists explained. “But that should end,” he insists. “People should confront these corrupt officials instead.”
The powers-that-be in Iraqi Kurdistan are not amused. “These people are not activists and it is wrong to describe them as such,” says Nouri Othman Sinjari, a spokesperson for the government. “Their only activity is vandalism and scandal and it is disgusting. Did they organize any demonstrations against the [Iraqi] government and those who occupied Kirkuk?” he said, referring to the Iraqi military’s October incursion into areas formerly controlled by the Iraqi Kurdish military.
“These people are doing this to serve partisan goals,” Sinjari continued. “They have done nothing other than sabotage. Is it activism to insult provincial governors? It is not activism. It is an unethical act that reflects the kind of person they are. Let them tell us one positive thing they did,” he fumed, adding that the Kurdish people needed to stick together and not cause division within the populace.
“If these activists had been living in the Kurdish region they would have been punished,” he continued. “But the laws in Europe have stayed the hand of Kurdish authorities. They can do whatever they want in those countries and we have no right to interfere.”
Nader says he has been threatened many times for organizing the video protests but that his group – which is small in number and works in secrecy – has also been praised by many locals on social media, especially those who have concerns about transparency and ethical governance in Iraqi Kurdistan.