Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
The 13 August 2016 began like any other day that summer for Widad Hussein. Dressed in a shirt and with three days of stubble, the 28-year-old journalist drove his brother, who was twelve years older than him, to his workplace on a building site in the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk. But this journey was to be his last. Two hours later Ali’s body lay by the side of an arterial road heading west: his torso was marked by electric shocks and burns, three fingers were missing and his eyes had been cut out with knives.
The Kurdish journalist Widad Hussein was just 28 years old.
Even by the standards of this war-torn region, it must have been a gruesome scene that played out on that morning in the Malta district of Dohuk, located just a few kilometres from the Mosul dam. According to reports from eye-witnesses, minutes after stopping at the building site, Ali was dragged from his car by three men, threatened with a gun, tied up and pushed into a car with a mask over his face. It’s not clear where exactly he died, but one thing we do know is in the minutes before his death he was beaten with truncheons and tormented with electric cables. Clearly he had not been shot, but had been tortured to death.
A camera belonging to Ali’s employer Roj News was left behind in the car. It was only two months previously that he had joined the Kurdish news website, which has close links with the PKK Kurdistan Workers’ Party, currently categorised as a terror organisation. He had previously been sacked from the Ministry of Culture of the autonomous region of Kurdistan due to his links with the PKK. In his journalistic work, he examined the KDP party that rules northern Iraq, denouncing corruption within the autonomous government in his articles and on social networks, and he was said to have continually received threats from within the party.
After the murder, a friend told Human Rights Watch that he had seen a death threat on Ali’s phone from a man Ali thought to be an employee of Parastin, the foreign intelligence service of the autonomous region of Kurdistan. Parastin had apparently taken Hussein into custody multiple times in an attempt to “convert” him to an informer. The police authorities in the autonomous region of northern Syria made similar attempts, his brother told Human Rights Watch, and just a few weeks before his death, Hussein had been imprisoned and tortured for days, he said. He made it out of the torture chamber with enduring scars.
Apparently he did not reveal any knowledge of his informant.
It remains unclear who is behind the murder of Widad Hussein. The Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, has since attempted to clarify whether the murder was linked to his work. The challenging investigations in this civil war region continue, and the notion that his conflicts with the Kurdish authorities decided his fate remains just a theory. After the murder, the KDP announced a “full investigation” of the case.
Ali’s brother, however, lays the blame for the murder firmly at the feet of the security institutions. Since Ali had become affiliated to the PKK, he had been summoned by the authorities more than ten times, the last time being just three months before the murder, his brother stated. Ali had close links with the organisation and visited one of its training camps in 2014, yet even within the PKK itself, murders and brutal torture practices are not a rarity.
Shiite militias supported by Iran were also considered possible suspects, since they regularly hound Sunni journalists in Kurdish regions – and have various torture methods in their repertoire. The same goes for Islamic State, whose stronghold Mosul lies just an hour south of Dohuk.
Following the murder of Widad Hussein, journalists from all over the Kurdish region demonstrated against the dangerous working conditions in northern Iraq. Here, the bombs of suicide attackers or IS are not the only threats to their lives; targeted violence against journalists and curtailments of their freedom of speech were also denounced by the demonstrators. “Hussein is one of dozens of journalists in the autonomous region of Kurdistan to be killed, beaten, arrested or harassed”, said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East division at Human Rights Watch.
The World Press Freedom Index 2016 compiled by Reporters Without Borders rates Iraq as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. In December 2013 the journalist Kawa Garmiani was shot in Kalar, southeast of Kirkuk, by a fanatical supporter of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. In July 2008 the newspaper reporter Soran Mama Hama was shot in front of his house in Kirkuk after publishing revelations about the involvement of the local police in illegal prostitution.
His murder has remained unsolved for twelve years. Likewise that of Widad Hussein, for which we still have no explanation.
written by Alexander Holecek; Kölner Stadtanzeiger
The Iraqi journalist Widad Hussein worken for Roj News, a pro-PKK news website. It remains unclear, if his death is related to his journalistic work. However, Hussein as an ethnic Kurd stood right between the poles of PKK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), who wanted Hussein to work for them as an informant. Widad Hussein died at the age of 28.