In Releasing Writer, Kurds Ponder Press Freedom

Baby Sue Sue, whose care is funded by an American zoo in Nebraska, is cradled by mother XiXi at China's Wolong Nature Reserve.
Baby Sue Sue, whose care is funded by an American zoo in Nebraska, is cradled by mother XiXi at China's Wolong Nature Reserve. (Wolong Nature Reserve)
By Nora Boustany
Friday, April 7, 2006

A representative for Iraq's regional Kurdish government said Thursday in Washington that the prosecution of an Iraqi-born Kurd with Austrian citizenship had been mishandled and that his sentence was disproportionate to the wrong he committed.

"Out of a zero, we made a hero," the official, Nijyar Shemdin , said about the case of Kamal Kadir Karim , a lawyer and author jailed last year and released Monday. "I know everybody felt the way." Shemdin added that Kurdish authorities in Iraq were constantly trying to improve laws pertaining to freedom of expression.

Karim, 48, was arrested in October for writing articles posted on the Internet that accused the Kurdish leadership of corruption, abuse of power and mistreatment of women. He was convicted of defamation and initially sentenced to 30 years in prison.

The sentence was denounced as excessive by Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists and other humanitarian organizations. It also drew criticism from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw .

Kurdish groups also mounted a campaign in support of Karim, who was educated in top schools in Vienna and had returned to the city of Salahuddin last summer to teach at a university.

Nechirvan Barzani , the Kurdish regional prime minister, commuted Karim's sentence Monday. Barzani, who is a nephew of Massoud Barzani , the regional president and leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party, said in a statement that Karim's "assertions" were "negative and irresponsible," but that "I have commuted his sentence and I am asking the Kurdistan National Assembly to review laws on press freedom and to consider changes that will make our press and writers more free -- not less."

Karim was released into the custody of an Iraqi trade representative working with the Austrian Embassy in Baghdad and flown Thursday from Irbil, in northern Iraq, to Cologne, Germany. From there, he took a train to Vienna, according to his brother-in-law, Taha Mohammed Zaman , reached by telephone in the German town of Heilbronn, near Stuttgart.

Zaman said he spoke to Karim twice after he landed in Cologne and just before he boarded the train for Austria. "He told me he was in good health, just fine, and that he is expected to arrive in Austria early Friday," Zaman said.

Kurdish authorities had asked him to leave the region and provided him with protection because they felt they could not guarantee his safety, Zaman said by telephone.

The Austrian ambassador to Iraq, Gudrun Harrer , was in contact with Kurdish authorities throughout the trial and during subsequent negotiations but could not travel to Irbil because of dire security conditions along the roads, said Christoph Meran , press attache at the Austrian chancery in Washington.

Meran said that Austrian authorities insisted that Karim first return to Austria but that he had asked to go back to Kurdish areas. "He told Ambassador Harrer by telephone that after he returns to Austria, he would like to come back to Iraq's Kurdish region at some point in the future," Meran said.

Adopting Chinese Pandas

"Who doesn't love pandas?" Lee Simmons , the director of the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, exclaimed Wednesday in Washington after presenting the Chinese ambassador, Zhou Wenzhong , with a check for $35,000 to support a panda adoption program.

Simmons said the money would go for the "adoption" and care of Sue Sue, a panda born Aug. 16 to XiXi at the Wolong Nature Reserve in China. Sue Sue and XiXi will remain in China, Simmons said.

"Sue Sue is really cute right now and weighs about 43-44 pounds," he said, adding that the adoption project is just one way to support conservation efforts in China.

"There have been a number of zoos and individuals who have adopted pandas who will never come to the United States," he said. "We would just love to have more pandas, and we have also been collaborating with the Chinese for the past eight years on the preservation of South China tigers."

Simmons, who was accompanied by Walter Scott , the zoo's chairman of the board, said the Henry Doorly Zoo was also working with Chinese authorities on bamboo cultivation and reforestation. "There are studies underway on the special nutritional aspects of bamboo. The health of the bamboo forest in the panda habitat is very important, and we have a rare plant lab at the Omaha zoo," he said.

Jolly bamboo chew sticks!

© 2006 The Washington Post Company