Controversy arises in the Kurdistan Region parliament over new weapons bill

15-01-2022 09:27
An arms market in Erbil. photo: Safin Hamed—AFP/Getty Images

PEREGRAF- Framan Sadiq

A new bill that aims to control gun ownership and impose strict regulations for gun licensing in the Kurdistan Region has put parliamentarians into disagreement over articles in the bill that they say might be used to compromise the already-fragile human rights situation in the Kurdistan Region.

The first weapons ownership law was passed about 30 years ago which the government claims cannot control weapons usage anymore and needs amendments.

The new bill’s first reading by the Kurdistan Region parliament in November 2021, it contains slight changes in punishment, age, and licensing among others. It was endorsed by the ruling and biggest party in the Kurdistan Region, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), but was rejected by parties who said the articles are flawed and can be easily bent and used by the government in violation of human rights.

The current law and the new bill

The first weapons law was passed in 1993 by the national assembly which is now out of the parliament. It consists of 28 articles. Its most severe punishment is life imprisonment, the permitted age to carry a weapon is over 18 years old with certain regulations and procedures, and licenses must be renewed within 90 days after expiration.

Those who use the licensed weapon to commit acts of terrorism and sabotage public security will be sentenced to life imprisonment, and those who use weapons against the government in demonstrations will be either fined or sentenced to one year in prison or both.

The changes in the new bill are granting permission for diplomats to carry weapons, the age at which one is allowed to carry weapons has been changed from 18 to 21 years, and licenses are for one year which must be renewed within 30 days when it expires.

Punishments are also more severe. In addition to life imprisonment, death sentences will be imposed against those who commit acts of terrorism and sabotage public security, illegal weapons’ dealers will be sentenced to no less than one year and no more than ten years, and those committing murder with a licensed weapon will be sentenced to hanging.

Skepticism in parliament

The new bill has been widely criticised by the parties in parliament, including the second-biggest party in the Kurdistan Region, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Deputy chair of the Interior, Security and Local Councils Committee in the Kurdistan Parliament, Balambo Kokoy, says the previous weapons law is "much better than the Kurdistan Regional Government's new bill,” claiming the government aims to make money with its dynamic articles that can be easily bent in their interest.

The MP, affiliated with the PUK, says the government's justification for this bill is that the 1993 law has not been implemented properly and they want to legally control unlicensed weapons.

”There is not a single Kurdish house that doesn’t have a weapon. In the appendix of the bill it’s mentioned issuing the weapon license costs 100,000 dinars [about $68], the annual renewal costs 80,000 dinars, re-issuance of permits is 250,000 dinars, so the aim of the law is to take money from citizens in other ways," Kokoy told Peregraf, adding that people have already bought their own weapons and now the government wants to take money under the name of permit fees.

The government has held security campaigns to confiscate these weapons, but that has not put an end to gun violence in the Kurdistan Region.

"There are some houses with heavy weapons such as missiles, mortars, DShK, mortar, RPG, and BKC," Minister of Interior Rebar Ahmed said in a parliament session last year, adding that the aim of amending the weapon law was to impose tighter regulations and punishments.

The section regarding the use of weapons against "public security and in demonstrations" with no specific clarifications in the bill has made MPs worried that it might be misused.

Kokoy says there are some dynamic sections in the bill that can be controversial. "This allows lawyers and judges to play with it because laws must be short and concise with no room for controversy, even the definition and classification of weapons and fireworks is wrong and not differentiated.”

“Article 13 of the project law is dynamic and you can arrests a group of people under the pretext that they’re a group of terrorists when there are weapons in every house,” Kokoy added.

The new bill gives all authority to the interior minister, which Kokoy criticizes, while the ninth cabinet's plan was to transfer power to administrations and governorates. "The government has asked for emergency approval of the bill. The region is not in a legal gap in that regard, so the urgency shows that there’s purpose behind the issuance of this dynamic bill," Kokoy said.

The MP believes the law needs lobbying so that it is not approved as it is and amended in parliament. "If the KDP wants to pass it by a majority vote, it will be known as the KDP law and history will write that the law is passed only by KDP votes," he noted.

Article 13 of the bill, which some parliamentarians consider "dangerous", its first section says any person who smuggles fireworks or makes it without a commercial license will be sentenced to imprisonment.

The second section of the article is similar to section one but for firearms, and its punishment is imprisonment for no less than 10 years.

Section three which parliamentarians also consider a threat, says if what is mentioned from section one and two "is committed for terrorist acts, disrupting public security or supporting any insurgency against the region, the punishment will be hanging or life imprisonment.”

The bill does not clarify what is meant by “disrupting public security and supporting insurgency against the region" which parliamentarians fear that these sections will be bent and used to violate human rights.

One voice with the government

The KDP is in complete agreement with the government bill and tries to dampen any doubt and criticism while advocating for more severe punishments and tighter regulations for carrying weapons.

Arshad Lolani, a KDP-affiliated MP and member of the Interior, Security and Local Councils Committee, says by passing the bill "the large quantity of weapons in Kurdistan will be decreased, and especially crimes committed by weapons or random shootings by citizens.”

Small arms and heavy weapons have been used to resolve family, tribal, and party disputes in the Kurdistan Region. Moreover, because the region has been in constant conflict and war, a weapon has become a prototype of power. Weapons are also given as gifts in election campaigns and celebrations.

"The bill is more comprehensive compared to the 1993 law, it has been changed and is compatible with the current situation in Kurdistan," Lolani told Peregraf.

He also believes that permit fees should be increased so not everyone can carry weapons.

"Although we know the reality of Kurdistan that there are few houses with no weapons, there must be a law to regulate it, so I agree that the financial penalties in the law must be costly, permission and renewal must also be costly so that it doesn't encourage people to carry a weapon at home," Lolani said.

The KDP MP also explained that according to the law, citizens can only have handguns, Kalashnikov and M4 rifles at home.

In 2015, the KRG’s interior ministry issued a decision to reorganise weapons licensing, it gave the governor and head of administrations the authority to give these permissions, and permission for Kalashnikov were to be given only by the minister when needed.

Arshad Lolani invalidates parliamentarians' skepticism, particularly on Article 13 of the bill, saying it is a “misunderstanding” and that it’s for dealers who bring a group of weapons into the Kurdistan Region and distribute it to groups and individuals who use them for terrorist acts, then the dealer will be brought to court under the terrorism law.

"The article has been added because it does not exist in the terrorism law, and it is when the dealer knows that they have brought weapons to the group and that they are using it for terrorism," he said. "Article 13 is not dangerous for those who are not affected by it, and the importance is in its implementation."

Will it end weapons usage, or increase it?

Ashna Abdullah, a member of parliament from the Change (Gorran) party, believes there is a different threat of the weapon bill, which is instead of eradicating weapons usage, it will increase it, and criticised the changes for being “simple.”

Abdullah also noted that the age at which one can carry weapons should be older. "Article 5’s conditions of rights to carry a weapon are very simple, for example a 21-year-old can acquire a weapon, they have not yet finished university at that age," she told Peregraf, noting that the law is “very dangerous” if the bill is passed the way it is and not amended.

"In my opinion, the bill itself is bad, because it will legally arm the society, which is inappropriate and citizens should not have weapons," she said.

According to official statistics from the KRG, since the Kurdish uprising of 1991, more than 20,700 weapon permits have been issued in the Kurdistan Region.

"It has not been clarified how it proves whether that person [that applies for permission] is suitable or not? Therefore, the regulations are full of shortcomings and open the door for everyone to carry a weapon. Every effort has been made to strip the parties off their weapons, and not to arm the society legally," Abdullah said.

Regarding Article 13 in the bill, Abdullah says "This article is very dangerous and it has given the power to authorities to bring anyone they target to court who has a weapon.”

Worried for the future

The Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) believes the threats of this bill will be more apparent when it is implemented in the future if the bill is approved, noting that they will try to prevent it from being misused.

Sherko Jawdat, head of KIU, says the new licensing and the lack of access is “a good thing,” but what Jawdat sees is as a threat is the approval of this bill when the Kurdistan Region has "no national force and what exists is Unit 70 force and Unit 80 force.”

The two units mentioned by Jawdat are thousands of Peshmerga fighters controlled and under the command of the Kurdistan Region’s two ruling parties, Unit 70 force affiliated with the PUK and Unit 80 force affiliated with the KDP.

Jawdat told Peregraf that weapons dealing, their classification, punishment by execution and the term terrorism in the bill are flawed and are controversial. "Those forces that are not governmental, according to that bill, their weapons will be illegal, how will that be treated? This can be done by a national force, which they have not yet been able to form a national force for Peshmerga and security,” he said.

In addition to handguns owned by the parties’ armed men, there are weapons markets in the Kurdistan Region’s provinces that trade weapons under the supervision of security forces, although it is against the law.

"Weapons should only be owned by the government and that’s what we want, but just like how people are charged with terrorism for a comment, [people] could be sentenced to hanging for the weapon that is in most houses. That’s why there is a problem with the bill’s timing, form and way of implementation. We want to prevent it from being misused," said Jawdat.