We are here as friends of Kurdistan, but candid friends of Kurdistan. Over the years, I have worked with the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees—Dashty Jamal, in particular, as we are naming people. In my area, the Kurdish community stems from the 1980s, and particularly a group of Kurdish students who were at Brunel University when Halabja was gassed and we lost thousands of lives. Many remained and settled in the local community, making a major contribution to it. I have to say that, at the time that Halabja occurred, my Conservative predecessor supported Saddam Hussein—a disgrace to this Parliament.

As a candid friend and as a trade unionist, I raise two issues. The first relates to the teachers’ strike that is taking place. The second, because I am the secretary of the NUJ—National Union of Journalists—group in Parliament, is the treatment of journalists. The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) was straightforward about the suppression of dissent, the corruption and the lack of adequate judicial enforcement of the law at the moment, and we have to be straight with people.

I will briefly read from the letter that has come out from the Nationwide Council of Protesting Teachers in Kurdistan. The dispute has gone on for months and is causing immense concern and suffering for teachers and their families. The first paragraph is this:

“We, the Nationwide Council of Protesting Teachers, comprised of representatives from the 13 protesting border cities and towns, wish to inform you that after 130 days of civil struggle, boycotts, demonstrations, and the loss of an academic season, the KRG authorities, instead of meeting our basic demands…which include”

the return of fair “promotion, recruitment of teachers, payment of salaries every 30 days, determining the fate of”

what they describe as “44 stolen” salary months

“are currently engaging in illegal, inhuman, and violent pressure and threats against teachers in general, and members leading protests in particular.”

What is happening in this dispute? It is a straightforward dispute about payment of wages. The teachers have not been paid for four months and, as a result, their families are on the edge of destitution in many instances. All they are asking for is payment of salaries on a monthly basis, resumption of the promotion of teachers and other employees in the education sector, and an end to the casual contracts that many have been forced to take recently.

I also have to comment on the politics—we have to be straight about that, too. The teachers want to stop what they describe as the meddling by the dominant parties in the affairs and work of Government institutions and particularly in the education system. Those are fair demands, which we should support, and I urge the authorities to come to a speedy resolution of the dispute, because it is infecting other areas of civil society and political life.

I raise the second issue on behalf of journalists. I am afraid that, for a long period—over the past five years in particular—there has been an issue with the treatment of journalists who have sought to report accurately and fairly on not only the activities of political institutions within Kurdistan but civil society affairs generally. According to the reports we are getting back, the crackdown has been fairly ruthless since 2020. It intensified about then because protests were taking place and journalists were trying to report those protests. We received reports through the union about arbitrary arrests and the forcible disappearing of a number of journalists.

It was not just the union; Amnesty did a report as well, and I found it deeply worrying. At the time, Amnesty said:

“The authorities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq have launched a chilling crackdown in their efforts to silence critics over the past year”—

this was 2020. The report went on to say:

“They have rounded up activists and journalists, prosecuting them on trumped-up charges in unfair trials and harassing or intimidating family members who were kept in the dark about the status of their loved ones.”

That was from the then deputy director of Amnesty International for the middle east and north Africa.

These things have gone on. Amnesty investigated the case of 14 people from Badinan who were arbitrarily arrested between March and October 2020 by the KRG security and intelligence and Kurdish Democratic Party intelligence. That case was specifically connected to their reporting of the protests and to criticism from local authorities of their journalistic work. At that point—I am afraid that further evidence has now come to light—there was evidence of torture and ill treatment during detention in cells and of a number of confessions being extracted under duress. In fact, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders published the world press freedom index on World Press Freedom Day—which is on 3 May each year—and Iraq is ranked 167th for press freedom out of 180 countries. That is worrying in itself, but Iraq also ranks fifth out of those 180 countries for countries where journalists are killed and the killers escape punishment—that was from the renowned and respected report of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Iraq, including Kurdistan, is still one of the most dangerous areas for journalists to work in. Recently, alarms have been sounded about the renewal of the sentencing of journalists—with some sentences of up to six years in prison—and the renewal of sentences. I want briefly to highlight the cases of a number of individuals. Reporters Without Borders sounded the alarm about increased violations of press freedom and particularly about the renewal of the sentence of Sherwan Sherwani, which was described in the media in this country as being cruel and outrageous punishment. On 1 October 2023, the Irbil court sentenced journalist Gohdar Zibari to another six months in prison. The practice seems to be that six-month sentences are renewed fairly regularly; for him, that was the third time that his sentence had been renewed. Roj News reporter, Sulaiman Ahmad, whose lawyer and relatives are still not allowed to see him, was arrested in late October last year on charges of having links with the Kurdistan Workers Party—the PKK. That case was brought forward without any evidence. The relatives are asking for access and greater transparency about what evidence is being used to justify the arrest.

Arrests of journalists peak when demonstrations are taking place or when there are industrial disputes, such as the teachers’ dispute that is taking place at the moment. The targeting of journalists who are campaigning around those issues has been interpreted, by people locally and within the journalistic community globally, as another regime seeking to silence the voice of the people, as reported by those journalists.

There appears to be a lack of accountability through the judicial system. The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke made reference to the improvements that are needed to ensure that there is a fair and independent judicial system. I am afraid that, when it comes to journalists and trade unionists, there is a feeling that the judicial system is not independent or fair and that, in fact, it becomes a tool of politicians aiming to silence critics of their activities.

As has been said, the British Government have a particular relationship with Kurdistan and the Kurdish people because of our history and the activities that have taken place, particularly over recent years, to establish some form of Kurdistan and encourage its development as a democratic state that is accountable to its people. Unfortunately, some of the foundation stones of the democratic state we are hoping for, particularly with regard to the freedom of trade unions and journalists, are being undermined by the current regimes. As a result, I think the UK Government have a responsibility—in fact, I think it behoves us all—to make sure that we voice our concerns to the current Administrations and do all we can to put pressure on them to abide by certain basic democratic standards: the recognition of the freedom of trade unions and of the freedom of journalists to report without hazard, particularly to their physical security.

I urge the Government to make an honest reproach to the Kurdistan Administrations—to express our support for Kurds and for Kurdistan, but also to say very clearly that the standards at the moment are not good enough. One action that could be taken fairly quickly to reassure people that there is faith in the democratic process is the settlement of the teachers’ dispute and the protection of journalists.

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