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October 7, 2022 11:32 am

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Voice of America: Reporter’s Notebook: Arrest at Iraqi Kurdistan Protest ‘Violated’ Rights

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Journalists working for VOA had their live broadcast interrupted as authorities moved in to arrest them while they were covering a protest in the Iraqi Kurdistan city of Sulaymaniyah.

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Reporter Snur Karim and video journalist Mohammed Azad Majeed were filming with permission in a market area of the city on August 6 when security forces seized the journalists’ equipment and phones and drove them at high speed to the security headquarters, where they were questioned.

Karim said she was kept in a sweltering prison cell and forced to sign a document without knowing what it said.

VOA said that it was “extremely dismayed” by the detention and that  Karim’s colleagues had sounded the alarm in Washington after seeing security disrupt the Facebook Live broadcast.

“We remain very concerned about this incident, particularly given that our team was reporting on scene, with appropriate authorization,” VOA’s public relations team said in a statement.

At least 20 journalists were detained or harassed August 5-6 in relation to protests organized by an opposition political party over the rising cost of living, rights groups said.

In an account of her arrest, shared with VOA, Karim said she felt pressured by security forces. She said she believed authorities gained access to her confiscated phone without her permission.

Colonel Yasin Samei, a spokesperson for Sulaymaniyah Security Directorate, did not comment directly on Karim’s case. He told VOA that those who believed they were disrespected or had equipment taken should file complaints with the authorities.

The following account from Karim has been translated and edited for length and clarity.

——–

We were filming a Facebook Live broadcast inside a market in Sulaymaniyah when security agents suddenly grabbed the cellphone I was using, arrested me and my cameraman, Mohammed Azad, and seized our equipment.

Under pressure, I was forced to hand over the code of my mobile and was told we could not inform VOA or our families of our arrest.

The security forces put us in a minibus with tinted windows. Inside were teenagers and young people, who had been arrested for protesting.

One asked, “What have we done? Why are you arresting us?” But a security agent just told them to be quiet.

We were transferred to the security agency headquarters like members of a criminal gang and thrown around as the vehicle sped through the city at a high rate of speed. I worried we would be in an accident.

Taken from vehicle

Once the vehicle stopped, we were dragged out and shuffled through a large number of security men. We were escorted through a yard where I saw a large number of teenagers — young people who had been at the protests, many of whom appeared to be under 18 — sitting on the ground with armed guards keeping watch.

According to one guard, a 12-year-old boy among the detainees cried in terror when he saw the armed men.

The way the security men looked at me, in a suggestive way, made me feel violated.

Several times I asked for my phone so I could contact my family. They refused.

We were taken in front of security guards, who started asking questions: our names and those of our family; where we lived and what we did. We were asked about political affiliations, even the model of our cars.

They asked stranger questions: Do we drink? Do we smoke hookah? What tribe do you belong to?

The tone was disrespectful and the questions prying. It scared me. I was thinking, “What if they think I am a ‘call girl’?” The questions about my car made me worry that I could be targeted later. “What if someone recognizes it?”

Forced to sign form

The guards then made me sign a form without giving me the chance to read it.

I was taken to the women’s section of the building, where a female employee was told to watch me. I asked her for my phone so I could send a text message, but she refused.

The room they kept me in looked like an animal’s cage, with bars on the ceiling. It had no air conditioning and the temperature was around 95 F.

Another woman was in the same room. We both called out that it was too hot and asked for the door to be opened. The employees refused and told us to stop screaming.

More women were in a neighboring room. I asked an employee who they were and she said their cases varied but most related to drugs.

After around two hours, someone called my name.

I was taken to the head office, where I saw my cameraman, Azad. He had not been treated much better, held in the yard with other men and teenagers, all of them forced to sit on the ground.

At the head office, the official treated us with respect and said he had an order for our release. We asked for our equipment, especially my phone, but he said it was with the IT section and would be returned later.

We left but returned an hour later to see if we could get the phone. Again, we were told no.

We returned a third time, at 10 p.m., nearly four hours after the phone had been seized. The same official was there. I expressed my wariness that they had a copy of my data. He denied anything was done to my phone, but I have my doubts.

Phone returned, with note

When the phone was returned, a piece of paper was taped to the back. On it, someone had written my name, VOA, and the phone’s access code. With that information, anyone could easily have accessed the phone and seen my apps and personal folders.

For four hours, my mobile was in the hands of security forces. I worry that its data may have been copied. The guards themselves said the IT department had taken the phone.

They had forced me to provide the code to open it, but they should have had a judge’s order to do that.

Our treatment violated universal human rights, as well as local and international law. It was done without respect to media and, as a woman, I felt disrespected.

We were not harmed physically, but from the moment of our arrest until we were freed was a time of mental injury and violation.

Dilshad Anwa contributed to this report, which originated in VOA’s Kurdish Service.

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