(NEW YORK)— PEN America today decried the “callousness” of a decision by a court in Iraq’s Kurdistan region to add four more years to a sentence against journalist Sherwan Sherwani— just two months before his release— and the further arrest of a second journalist, Omed Baroshki, who criticized the court’s decision.

Justin Shilad, PEN America’s research and advocacy lead for the Middle East and North Africa  said: “The fact that Sherwani was behind bars to begin with for his critical writings is outrageous enough. But adding four more years to his sentence –– less than two months before his scheduled release –– and then arresting Baroshki for criticizing the sentence indicates a level of callousness by the Kurdish authorities in their drive to suppress free speech. The Kurdistan Regional Government should immediately release Sherwani and Baroshki and reverse their longstanding crackdown on free expression in Iraqi Kurdistan.”

On Thursday,  a court in Erbil, governed by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, increased Sherwani’s sentence by four years, in response to Sherwani allegedly forging the signature of detained journalist Guhdar Zebari on a petition. The sentence was handed down despite testimony that Zebari, who was being held in solitary confinement, had allowed Sherwani to sign on his behalf. Sherwani and Zebari had both originally been sentenced to six years in prison in February 2021 after a trial in which observers said prosecutors lacked substantial evidence. In February 2022, KRG President Nechirvan Barzani issued a decree reducing Sherwani’s sentence by half, putting him on track to be released in September 2023.

After news broke of the verdict increasing Sherwani’s sentence, Baroshki criticized the decision during a press conference, saying it was indicative of “a military mindset.” Security forces in Duhok in northern Iraqi Kurdistan detained him later that night without a warrant. Iraqi Kurdish authorities had previously detained Baroshki for over 18 months.

Concerns over freedom of expression in Iraqi’s Kurdistan region have multiplied in recent years as the region has seen significant backsliding from its prior image as a relative haven for democracy and human rights. Journalists regularly face arrest, assault and harassment while doing their work, and in May a court ordered the closure of Rasan, an organization focused on LGBTQ+ rights in Iraqi Kurdistan, the latest move in a broader crackdown on the LGBTQ+ community in the region.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. To learn more visit PEN.org 

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057