Monthly Spotlight: The Kurdistan Victims Fund Lawsuit

Masrour Barzani meeting with United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, February 2024 (Kurdistan Regional Government/Public domain)

Top stories from February

  • The New Arab: US court summons Iraqi Kurdistan PM Masrour Barzani over multiple charges – February 19th, 2024: Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani has been summoned to a US District Court to answer to charges including “atrocities, indiscriminate violence, arson, murder, attempted murder, genocide, abduction, hostage-taking, kidnapping, torture, collaboration with terrorist organizations, and financial crimes.”
  • Rudaw: US says concerned about ‘backsliding’ of press freedom in Kurdistan – February 1st, 2024: The US Consulate in Erbil has expressed concern about the “recent backsliding” of press freedom in the Kurdistan Region, adding that the Consulate was “committed to working with local and international partners to improve the media landscape, including providing professional development opportunities for journalists.”
  • Forbes: America’s Allies Often Misbehave When They Know They’re Needed – February 21st, 2024: Forbes contributor Melik Kaylan discusses how the US is often compelled to ignore the faults of its allies. Kaylan places a spotlight on Iraqi Kurdistan’s ruling Barzani family, who he claims continue to receive support from the West despite alleged evidence of widespread corruption and human rights issues.
  • Rudaw: PM Barzani addresses world leaders in DubaiFebruary 12th, 2024: Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani delivered a speech to world leaders at the World Government Summit, stressing the legitimacy of Kurdish claims for self-determination and discussing the numerous security crises faced by Kurdistan and its regional partners.

The Kurdistan Victims Fund’s lawsuit against Masrour Barzani and co.

On February 15th  2024, a week before Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani convened with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington DC, he was summoned by a US court to face accusations of complicity in a litany of crimes ranging from murder to terrorist financing.

The Prime Minister and his co-defendants, many of them also members of Kurdistan’s ruling Barzani family, stand accused of authorizing their agents to commit crimes including “extrajudicial killings, genocide, hostage taking and kidnapping, enforced disappearances, inhuman treatment, torture, rape, crimes against humanity, and multitudinous other unlawful and material acts”.

The 332-page complaint, that can be read in full at the bottom of this page, was filed in Washington last month by the Kurdistan Victims Fund, a US-registered non-profit foundation established in 2023. The Fund is represented by Maki Revend, a former Kurdish politician-turned-activist reportedly now living in exile in Germany.

Some commentators have suggested this lawsuit may place considerable strain on the Barzani family’s long-held alliances with its western partners.

The Barzani-led Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has served as a key US ally in Iraq for the past three decades. Under the leadership of Masrour Barzani’s father, Masoud, the KRG and their Peshmerga armed forces were instrumental in supporting the US-led coalition in their operation against Saddam Hussein’s regime. A decade after Saddam’s fall, the US and Kurdish militaries joined forces again to counter the extremist threat posed by ISIS.

File photo (Dahat Barzani/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Such collaborative historical ties allow the Kurdistan Region and its ruling Barzani family to continue to benefit from financial, military and rhetorical support from Washington.

The $800 million consulate the US is currently building in Erbil – set to be the world’s largest US consulate – is testament to the strength of US-Kurdish ties, as is the $15 million the US reportedly spends each month to pay the salaries of the Barzani-led Peshmerga.

But a US District Court less than two miles from where Masrour Barzani met the US Secretary of State, who described the KRG as a “critical partner for stability in the region”, has now summoned the Kurdish leader to answer to accusations of “serious violations of U.S. law” which “undermine American economic and national security.”

The Prime Minister is but one of 52 defendants named in the lawsuit.  Among the accused are KDP leader and clan patriarch Masoud Barzani, his nephew and Peshmerga commander Sirwan Barzani, and Masrour’s brother Waysi, who reportedly leads the KRG’s intelligence agency.

This complaint is no standard lawsuit. As the complaint itself notes, the allegations faced by the Barzanis and their co-defendants are not “routine misdeeds”. They stand accused of having participated in a criminal enterprise responsible for extrajudicial killings, drug smuggling and terrorist financing, underpinned by an embedded corruption scheme which has funnelled wealth into the hands of the Barzani family and their associates.

According to the complaint, so enmeshed is this “Barzani Continuing Criminal Enterprise” with the functions of the state that it constitutes a single “criminal-political entity”, which has operated in some ways as the de facto government of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Barzanis’ illicit activities are alleged to be supported by a tight-knit information control operation which drowns out dissenting voices that could otherwise expose their purported crimes.

Those who risk open criticism of the Barzani’s reportedly face dire consequences. According to the complaint: “Journalists who write, broadcast, or podcast critically of Defendant Masrour Barzani or his father Defendant Masoud Barzani often disappear or are imprisoned and never seen again.” These accusations echo concerns raised in February 2024 by the US consulate in Erbil over the “recent backsliding” of press freedom in Kurdistan.

Sleman Mohammed Ahmed, an Arabic editor for RojNews, was arrested at the Semalka border crossing (pictured) in October 2023. (Janet Biehl/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The consequences of this lawsuit extend far beyond the courtroom. It is rare for a US court to summon a sitting prime minister, let alone a strategically important US ally.

The allegations levelled against the Barzani family and their associates will stress-test US-Kurdish relations. Among the litany of allegations laid out in the complaint, Masrour Barzani and his co-defendants stand accused of directing the kidnapping and murder of a US government agent.

This is not the first time Masrour Barzani has had to answer to legal challenges in the US.

In 2022, he faced a defamation lawsuit filed in Virginia by Kurdish political advocate Shnyar Anwar Hassan. Her public criticism of Barzani allegedly led the Prime Minister’s office to publish a statement insinuating that Hassan had an extramarital affair with an American journalist, who had recently published an exposé on the Barzani family’s luxury property portfolio. The case was dismissed on grounds of lack of personal jurisdiction.

The case brought against him by the Kurdistan Victims Fund is unlikely to be so easily evaded, according to analysis from American Enterprise Institute fellow Michael Rubin. The accusations faced are far more grave. As Rubin has noted, even if Barzani is able to claim sovereign immunity, this privilege will not extend to many of his co-defendants, many of whom live in the US.

In any case, the accusations in this lawsuit are now in the public domain, and it remains to be seen how Masrour and his associates will respond. Their next steps will be closely monitored by governments, human rights organizations and international media.

Barzani Watch will continue to provide comprehensive coverage of the case as it develops.

What to watch

  • Masrour Barzani has until March 8th to respond to his summons to the US District Court for the District of Columbia. Barzani’s co-defendants, including his father Masoud, were due to respond by February 28th.
  • A date for the KRG’s long-delayed parliamentary elections has now been set for June 10th. The Barzani-dominated KDP and the Talabani-led PUK have been in a longstanding dispute over Kurdish election law, which has seen the elections face repeated postponements since their initial planned date of October 2022. The Region’s parliamentary elections had previously been scheduled for February 25th of this year but were postponed again in January after the Iraqi Supreme Court ruled that minority quota seats in Kurdistan’s parliament were “unconstitutional”.

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