On the 12th anniversary of the death of Kurdish journalist Sardasht Osman, an investigation by three press advocacy groups claims Iraqi Kurdish authorities were “likely directly involved” and that Osman was assassinated because of a satirical blog post.
The investigation’s results were published in a 43-page report Wednesday by A Safer World For The Truth, a collaborative initiative of Free Press Unlimited (FPU), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and Reporters without Borders (RSF).
The groups said they interviewed dozens of witnesses, analyzed case files and reviewed satellite photos in concluding that Osman, a citizen journalist, was targeted for an article written a year earlier criticizing the family of then-Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani.
Osman's body was found on May 6, 2010, in Mosul, two days after he’d been abducted outside his college campus in the Iraqi Kurdish capital, Irbil. He had been shot in the head.
“This report reveals serious flaws in the official investigation into the kidnap and assassination of Sardasht and finds credible allegations that Kurdish authorities were directly involved in the murder,” the group’s report states.
VOA reached out to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) for comment on the report but has not received a response. The KRG had accused the now-defunct terror group Ansar al-Islam of carrying out the killing. Barzani has previously denied any involvement in Osman's death.
Osman was 23 when he died and a student at the University of Salahaddin in Irbil. The offending blog post, titled "I am in love with Barzani’s daughter,” lampooned Barzani's family for nepotism and corruption.
After publishing his article, Osman wrote that he had received death threats and was interrogated by the security forces.
“There are always people who don’t want to listen when you start telling the truth, who get furious at the slightest whisper. To stay alive though, we must tell the truth. I will continue to write until the last minute of my life,” he wrote.
Numerous reports have documented how the Barzani and Talabani families have dominated Kurdistan for decades and allegedly amassed vast hidden wealth using their control of the regional government, security forces and oil resources.
A Safer World For The Truth describes itself as “a people's tribunal” in a world where impunity for crimes against journalists is common. The initiative so far has investigated impunity in the killings of five journalists.
In Osman’s case, the KRG created a special committee to investigate the matter. But the journalist groups found numerous problems in the committee’s work, making the explanation that terrorists were to blame implausible.
“First, we found that after the assassination, Kurdish authorities consistently harassed and threatened Sardasht’s family and friends, and threatened journalists who wrote about the case. Additionally, Kurdish authorities banned various publications about Sardasht’s life, work and assassination,” the report states.
“The location where Sardasht was kidnapped was constantly monitored by CCTV cameras and armed guards, yet the armed guards did not prevent the kidnapping; nor did the committee analyze CCTV footage of the kidnapping,” the investigation found.
An original autopsy report disappeared, the group said, as did its author. An official autopsy report was inconsistent with other physical evidence, and the KRG committee never interviewed Osman’s family and friends or investigated the threats he’d received.
Jules Swinkels, lead researcher for the group’s report said in a statement: “The case of Sardasht is emblematic of what can happen when journalists push the boundaries of their confined freedom of expression.”
"[Osman] wrote satirically about Kurdistan’s most powerful individuals and was kidnapped and assassinated because of it. Tragically, his case demonstrates that a complete lack of political will to investigate and solve murders of journalists domestically is one of the main reasons for impunity," Swinkels added.
In the years since Osman's death, at least 22 other journalists have been killed in Iraq, including several who died in KRG-controlled areas, according to the CPJ.
The report called on the European Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom, which have all aided the KRG financially and militarily, to press Kurdish authorities “to investigate threats against, attacks on and murders of journalists according to international standards, including a re-investigation of the case of Sardasht Osman.”