After Halabja Municipality fire, a search for burnt documents

07-11-2020 01:47
The aftermath of Halabja Municipality’s fire, September 22, 2020

Peregraf- Balen Izzat Mika

Several months have passed since Osman Bayiz began his registration process, but nothing has come of it. So far, neither he nor anyone else know whether the official documents, housed in the Halabja Municipality building, have been consumed by fire.

The process of registering Osman’s agricultural land in Halabja started prior to the fire. He tried to finish it afterwards, but each time was turned away discouraged.

Late in the night of August 22, 2020, the file room of the municipality office was set on fire. The incident left Osman and many others in Halabja disheartened.

Early that day, a peaceful demonstration had begun and it ended calmly in the evening. But late in the night, the protest reemerged and soon turned to chaos. From 9:00 P.M. to 12:00 A.M., several people disguised as protesters attacked the municipality building and some other government offices.

Why are people concerned?

Osman Bayz, a Halabja resident who visited the municipality office to tend to his business, says, “after the fire, I visited municipality office several times but because the building was burnt, business there had stopped.”

After the arson, some municipal employees tested positive for COVID-19 and the office was closed for another 20 days. But now they have started working again.

“They started working a few days ago and I visited them again, but they said they could not yet process documentation as they were busy with cleaning up the office,” Osman Bayz told Peregraf.

According to Peregraf’s investigation, people fear that their official documents, including land and real estate ownership files, might have been destroyed in the fire.

Kwestan Akram, Mayor of Halabja Municipality, said, “We have made every effort to process people’s documentation as efficiently as possible. Now our staff work four days a week on a rotation system, which is the equivalent of two full working days.”

The Municipality’s Destroyed Documents

After the file room was destroyed in the municipality building, rumors circulated that some of the files housed there contained information which led to the ouster of the previous mayor.

 “It is yet not clear what documents have been burnt. People should visit us and ask for their documents and then we know what was preserved and what was lost,” Kwestan Akram told Peregraf.

But in a statement by Halabja activists released the day after the incident, doubts were raised about the incident and the suspicions continue. According to information obtained by Peregraf, seven suspects have been arrested on charges of arson.

A source has told Peregraf that a report produced by Halabja Attorney General concerning the incident confirms that the files destroyed in the fire include employee files and a small amount of land and real estate ownership documents.

More than six thousand documents were destroyed in the fire, and reproducing them will take a long time.

“The main issue we face because of the incident is the impairment of our work. If a process had previously taken a month, now it might take a year because if the document in our office was destroyed, we will have to contact other offices to send us their copies of the document, and it takes a lot of time,” said the mayor.

“No documents will perish”

Contrary suspicions regarding the targeting of controversial documents by arsonists, the mayor says that documents “will not perish” as a result of the fire.

“The municipality is not the only department that deals with land and real estate. Any document that ends up in the municipality has other copies in other departments. Any document sent from municipality will be kept by the offices the file is sent to.”

Kwestan Akram further explained: “It is the nature of municipality’s work that it cannot unilaterally decide on the distribution of land, so if a document was kept in our archive, it has other copies in other departments.”

She gives an example that if a document in the office was destroyed, the municipality would contact other departments for their copies of the document. “This is a mandatory procedure and it takes a lot of time. But people should know that no document perished in the municipality fire.”

Other doubts

A day after the arson, Khidir Karim, the former mayor of Halabja Municipality, disappeared. Three days after his disappearance, he was found in the plains surrounding Halabja city.

Since he was found, Khidir Karim has not made a statement to the media.

There are suspicions that his disappearance was tied to the arson.

Several Halabja activists and public figures explained in a statement that the destruction of files in the Halabja Municipality building “was a premeditated crime and the motive was to destroy files related to corruption.”

These suspicions trace back to 2015 when the litigation of several cases naming Halabja municipality revealed that “the municipality registered lands and properties to people illegally.” It was at that time that Khidir Karim was dismissed from office.

After his dismissal, Khidir Karim left the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

Some of the legal disputes included claims that the former mayor distributed lands to political party cadres, distributed lands in an industrial area to people ineligible to possess them under the laws and regulations, designated land for two residential projects for the relatives of KDP martyrs without legal process, and that he granted land for the KDP Branch 12 building without legal process, among other charges.

Kwestan Akram says: “There is gossip that there was a conspiracy to burn the municipality’s files, but even if it is true, it was a ridiculous crime,” she confirms, “[because] those files are kept in other offices and they will not be lost in the fire.”

This investigative report was written by Balen Izzat Mika for Peregraf as part of the Intensive Journalism Workshop funded by the German Foreign Office.