SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq (AP) – Hundreds of students and other activists rallied Saturday to protest the kidnap and murder of a Kurdish journalist in northern Iraq, with many blaming the regional government for his death.
The killing of Sardasht Othman, 23, has drawn new attention to long-standing allegations of government-sanctioned abuse of media and freedom of expression in the self-rule region. International press watchdog groups have expressed concern over restrictions placed on journalists.
Authorities rejected any involvement in Othman’s death and called on the protesters to wait for the results of an investigation.
Othman was snatched Monday in front of the campus of University of Salahuddin in the regional capital of Irbil, where he was in his final year as an English literature student, according to police. His handcuffed and bullet-riddled body was found four days later outside the Kurdish region in Mosul, which has been a haven for al-Qaida in Iraq. The demonstrators maintained that his corpse was left there to shift the focus away from Kurds and suggest it was the work of Sunni Arab insurgents.
Kidnapping for ransom is rife in Iraq, although the Kurdish region has been largely spared the savage sectarian fighting and chaos that engulfed other parts of the country after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
“Kurdish security services want to instill fear in us by killing the journalists and forcing them to stop their writings, but their attempts will fail,” said Riben Hirdi, a respected Kurdish columnist participating in the demonstration.
At least 300 students supported by opposition politicians and other journalists gathered in a rare demonstration in front of Sulaimaniyah University bearing banners condemning the killing, including one saying “the assassination of Sardasht is the assassination of democracy.”
“They claim democracy and security … while a journalist is kidnapped and murdered in broad daylight,” said student Saman Karim, who carried a poster showing a pen and a gun. The regional government issued a statement Saturday condemning the murder and pledging to bring the perpetrators to justice.
“The killing of Othman is a serious crime and the reason behind this savage act is to threaten the security of the region and the life and freedom of the people,” it said. Kurdish government spokesman Fouad Hussein urged people to withhold judgment and “wait for the results of the investigations.”
Othman was a reporter for the biweekly Ashtiname newspaper and contributed to a number of Kurdish Web sites, often writing about corruption, according to the online Kurdistan Post, to which he also contributed. He reportedly had received threats over his articles.
Journalism advocacy groups and human rights organizations also have condemned the attack.
“The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the two parties that control the region, seemed to have reached an agreement to muzzle the press and restrict the freedom of journalists as much as possible,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement Thursday.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called on authorities to conduct a “thorough investigation into the slaying and make a commitment to fight impunity in journalist murders.”
Othman’s death follows that of Soran Mama Hama, who was shot dead outside his home in Kirkuk in July 2008 after writing articles critical of local politicians.
“We ask the Kurdistan government not to neglect this case (of Othman) as it did with the killing of journalist Soran Mama Hama,” said Shwan Mohammed, the editor of the Kurdish Awina paper, who attended the demonstration.