The murder of a young man named Zardasht Osman earlier this month called attention to the growing problem of government crackdowns on journalists and writers in Northern Iraq, and reminds us not to take our freedom of speech here for granted.
The ruling party of Kurdish-controlled Northern Iraq, under president Massoud Barzani, is under growing scrutiny by international watchdog organizations for its intolerance of criticism in the press. The New York Times reported that the party's security forces "are often accused of intimidating, threatening and assaulting journalists affiliated with opposition parties or critical of the corrupt patronage system fostered by the two governing parties."
Osman drew the attention of the security forces a few weeks ago when he penned a satirical poem decrying the nepotism and cronyism that runs rampant in Barzani's administration. He was abducted in front of the university he attended, and his body was found handcuffed and shot dead on a roadside four days later.
Some are accusing Barzani's security forces of carrying out the killing, and the event has led to demonstrations in the city of Sulamaniyah, drawing over a thousand protestors. Barzani's government has denied any involvement and claims it will investigate, but many remain doubtful -- the security forces responsible for the investigation are run by Barzani's son.
Michael Rubin of National Review Online published a translation of the poem that resulted in Osman's death. He noted, "for anyone that wants to know what it takes for a politician in Iraqi Kurdistan--which calls itself secure and democratic--to order your death, here it goes." Here's an excerpt:
I am in love with the daughter of [Iraqi Kurdistan president] Masud Barzani, the man who appears here and there and claims he is my president. I would like him to be my father-in-law and also I would like to be a brother-in-law with [former Prime Minister] Nechirvan Barzani.
If I become Masud Barzani's son-in-law, we would spend our honeymoon in Paris and also we would visit our uncle's mansion in America. I would move my house from one of the poorest areas in Erbil to Sari Rash [Barzani's palace complex] where it would be protected by American guard dogs and Israeli bodyguards.
I would make my father become the Minister of Peshmerga [the Kurdish militia]. He had been Peshmarga in September revolution, but he now has no pension because he is no longer a member of Kurdistan Democratic Party.
I would make my unlucky baby brother, who recently finished university but is now unemployed and looking to leave Kurdistan, chief of my special forces.
My sister who has been too embarrassed to go to the bazaar to shop, could drive all the expensive cars just as Barzani's daughters do.
Here in the U.S., we are free to fill our newspapers, airwaves and web pages with scorn for our politicians (and we do), but even our freedom of speech has its limits. A case concerning a very angry Kentucky man is now testing those limits. He recently published a 16 line poem called "The Sniper" that describes an assassination mission to kill President Obama (it reportedly included the line "Die Negro Die"). His attorneys are arguing that the poem should be protected as art, but he could face up to five years in prison for threatening to kill the president. Most, I'm sure, would consider that a reasonable line for our government to draw. The tragic death of Mr. Osman reminds us of how far Iraq has to go before its citizens can even have that debate.