Four murders a week, weapons kept at home are covering the Kurdistan Region in blood
Peregraf– Ghamgin Mohammed
An average of at least four people were murdered each week in the Kurdistan Region last year. An even higher number of people committed suicide. Underlying these disturbing figures are the widespread practice of keeping weapons at home and a lack of confidence in the Region’s legal system to resolve disputes.
According to official statistics given to Peregraf by the General Police Directorate of the Kurdistan Region, there were 215 murders recorded in 2022, of which 32 were deemed "unintentional and accidental." There were at least 240 suicides.
Erbil governorate had the highest number of murders last year, with 62 killings, followed by Sulaimaniyah with 41, and Duhok with 23. However, the data released by each of the provincial police departments showed a lower combined total than that released by the General Police Directorate.
"Weapons are not properly controlled and are easily available to citizens. Their presence in homes is a major reason for the continued murders and suicides," Sulaiman Sindi, spokesperson for the Kurdistan Region Human Rights Commission, told Peregraf.
As disturbing as the numbers for 2022 were, they actually represented a 22 percent decrease from the 274 murders in 2021. Suicides were also down 16 percent year-on-year.
The trends from 2022 appear to be continuing, with several murders and suicides already recorded by police so far this year. In Erbil, a man tortured and murdered his daughter on January 6 in Erbil. Five days later, a man was killed in Duhok by his nephew. The next day, another man was killed by his son in Sulaymaniyah.
Jalal is one of the hundreds of victims of gun violence in the Kurdistan Region in recent years. The 60-year-old, whose full name is being withheld at the request of his family, was shot dead in his car in Sulaimaniyah one evening in 2021 after buying bread.
His family believes that his murder was related to a land dispute that began in 1993. At the time, his father owned a home in Erbil, which was attacked by the other party in the dispute. In defending the property, Jalal shot and killed one of the assailants.
"Jalal's father did not want the incident to go to court. They made peace between the families in the traditional way and Jalal’s father gave up all his land. We came and settled in Sulaimaniyah, but we could not live comfortably and my husband was always armed," La’ali, Jalal’s wife, told Peregraf.
"My husband was killed by one of the sons of the man my husband murdered in 1993. We entrusted the punishment of the killer to the court in order to put an end to this bloodshed and [the defendant] was sentenced to death," La’ali continued.
According to Article 406 of the Iraqi Penal Code, the minimum punishment for premeditated murder is life imprisonment, with a death sentence also possible. According to Article 405 of the Iraqi Penal Code, unintentional murder is also punishable by up to life imprisonment, which lawyer Shalaw Abubakir explained means a prison sentence of more than 20 years.
"The statistics of murders and suicides in the Kurdistan Region are a clear and dangerous indication of the lack of security for individuals, families, and society. It also shows the lack of an effective plan by the KRG for gun control," Mohammed Gomeshini, a sociologist and family counselor, told Peregraf.
Guns are used in a high percentage of criminal incidents, including murders of women, and are considered to be a major contributor to violence in the Kurdistan Region. A previous investigation by Peregraf found that in the past ten years, nearly 1,000 women were murdered or committed suicide in the Kurdistan Region.
In addition to the weapons carried by partisan-affiliated security forces, gun markets used to flourish in the Kurdistan Region. Arms dealers operated under the supervision of the official security forces, although such transactions were technically illegal.
Last year, the KRG launched a campaign to collect unregistered weapons, with gunowners theoretically facing a penalty if they do not do so by July 2023. More than 20,000 weapons licenses have been issued since the 1991 uprising, according to official statistics from the KRG, but most gunowners do not have official paperwork.
Weapons are now dealt with according to Law No. 2 of 2022, Article 15 of which states that anyone who modifies, possesses, sells, repairs, or handles a firearm or related weapon without the permission of the licensing authority shall be punished with imprisonment for up to three years and a fine of up to 5 million Iraqi dinars ($3,428).
According to the General Police Directorate, the rate of seizure of illegal weapons in 2022 increased by 31 percent compared to 2021, such that last year 1,373 illegal weapons were seized, while in 2021 only 1,051 illegal weapons were seized.
Said Karzan Amir, spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Police claimed that "85 percent of the total crimes in 2021 have been handled and the perpetrators have been handed over to the criminal court."
Amir added that "a good percentage of the crimes in 2022 have also been directed to the court," but did not provide specific statistics.
"Everyone, especially the Interior Ministry, should play a greater role in preventing easy access to weapons and citizens must be careful and conscious while using them," said Sindi.
The Kurdistan Region’s economic crisis, which has resulted in salary delays, rising costs of goods, and poor provision of water and electricity, is believed to have contributed to many incidents of violence in the Region.
"Most of the cases of murder and suicide are caused by a rapid upheaval that a person faces. If [weapons] are not available at that time, they will most likely refrain from committing the crime when he or she later calms down" Zaria Omer, psychologist, told Peregraf.
"The individual in Iraqi society is mentally unstable due to a number of different circumstances and his feelings can change several times within a minute," she continued. "The temptation to commit murderous acts is present throughout the population of the world, which raises the importance of education and laws to prevent such acts."
In Islam, suicide and unjust killing are forbidden even if the person is not a Muslim.
"In Islam, the punishment for killing a person is going to hell and keeping him there forever. He is cursed and a great punishment is prepared for him," Salahuddin Mohammed, a preacher, told Peregraf. Suicide is also considered to be a punishable sin, which the Prophet Mohammed sought to discourage by refusing to perform a prayer over someone who had killed themselves.
A lack of trust in the formal courts and a reliance on resolving murder cases through tribal or political arbitration is another reason for continued killings, according to experts.
"More awareness should be raised to reassure citizens that they have full confidence in the courts that they will receive their rights, so that they do not resort to violence when they face problems," said Sindi.
There is a joint high-level operations room in the Kurdistan Region to arrest and extradite suspects, but political considerations sometimes come into play.
"Controlling the phenomenon of murder requires a strong political will by handing over the accused and the parties not harboring them, so that the accused can be punished," Gomeshini said.