Explore the past, present, and future of emergency aid in our Rethinking Humanitarianism series

Newspapers, Kurdish-prison style

[Iraq] Members of the prison committee sitting in the library, with the Iranian Kurdish drug smuggler sitting closest to camera- Sulaymaniyah.
Members of the jail committee discuss the contents of the next issue of the prison newspaper. (IRIN)

Articles on why UN Security Council members should have their veto rights taken away, a treatise on the progress of democracy in the Middle East. They wouldn't look out of place in the central pages of Le Monde, if not the New York Times.

But the authors of these pages of high seriousness are not the crème de la crème of France's intellectual elite, any more than they're East Coast liberals. They are prisoners at Ma'asker Salam, the largest jail in the northern Iraqi governorate of Sulaymaniyah.

"A prison sentence forces you to look long and hard at yourself," said Saadi Jelal, an Iranian Kurd serving 20 years here for drug smuggling. "Prisons are conducive to seriousness."

A former member of the extreme left-wing Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq, Jelal is now among the most active participants in one of Iraqi Kurdistan's more unusual humanitarian projects - a prison newspaper.

The brainwave of WADI, a German NGO based in Sulaymaniyah for over a decade, Asoi Goran, or Horizon of Change, came into being in September 1999. At first a weekly newsletter posted on the walls of Ma'asker Salam, it had evolved by 2002 into a book published once a year.

The editorial committee Jelal shares with men jailed for theft, smuggling and spying for the Baathists is now putting the finishing touches to the third edition, due to be published in the next fortnight.

"It enables us to air our views and to communicate with the outside world," Salam Majid, the committee member responsible for typing up hand-written articles selected from over the last 12 months onto a computer, told IRIN. "Above all, it gives us something to do."

Neither he nor Jelal had written a word before coming to Ma'asker Salam. Now both of them are nearing the end of their first books - Majid's is a memoir of his prison life, Jelal's is a translation of an American book on psychology from Farsi into Kurdish.

One of their colleagues, an Arab from Baghdad, has a book-load of love poems he's trying to publish. WADI's involvement in Iraqi Kurdish prisons dates back to 1995, when a local woman was sentenced to death for murdering her abusive husband.

After leading a successful campaign to persuade the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) authorities in Sulaymaniyah to ban the death penalty for women, it began a series of projects inside the women's and juveniles' prison.

"Back then, they were all we could work with," explained Falah Muratkhin, the driving force behind WADI's work at Ma'asker Salam. "Male prisoners at the time were the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice and out of our reach."

By the end of the 1990s, attitudes to prison justice and the administration of Kurdish prisons were changing and WADI seized the opportunity of extending its work throughout the prison system.

It began in 1998 with carpentry and blacksmith workshops. Its library, with furniture built by inmates, was opened in 2001. Alongside three computers, the room is used as a conference hall by visiting lecturers.

Set up to supervise the library and wall newspaper, the editorial commission also acts as a go-between between prisoners and the outside: relaying demands to the authorities, and organising cultural and educational events.

WADI was fortunate to have the full cooperation of a director of prisons who had spent six years of his life in Abu Ghraib, the most notorious of Saddam Hussein's jails.

He was somebody who knew very well, as WADI director, Thomas von der Osten-Sacken put it, that "in the past, Iraqis who went to prison just disappeared," figuratively if not literally. Finding funds for projects for male prisoners, however, has been more difficult.

"There are seldom more than a dozen women in the Sulaymaniyah prison, whereas there are hundreds and hundreds of men," von der Osten-Sacken said. "But it's much easier to convince people that women in prison should be given rights," he explained.

A US $15,000 plan to build three rooms to allow prisoners to spend the night with their wives was just one of several projects that foundered for lack of support.

"The prisoners told us that if they had the money, they would build the rooms with their own hands," said Muratkhin.

As it is, the lack of privacy continues to weigh on them. One cartoon in last year's edition of Asoi Goran shows a man and a woman standing under an umbrella. "They've been promising us rooms for over a year," says the man. "It's raining," replies his wife.

Another cartoon shows an ageing, balding inmate watching TV. On the screen, the stars of a Mexican soap opera aired on Kurdish TV kiss. In a thought bubble, the watcher replaces the male Mexican star with himself. "Ah, how beautiful freedom is," ironises the caption.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article
Join the discussion

Support The New Humanitarian

Your support helps us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.

Donate