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Editor of weekly released on bail, trial postponed; five journalists arrested, one beaten, another mistreated

(RSF/IFEX) - Five journalists were stopped and questioned by Kurdish security forces after braving a ban on travel to Iraq's border with Turkey, while the trial of the independent weekly "Hawlati"'s editor, Abid Aref, accused of defaming President Jalal Tabani, for which he faces up to one year in prison, opened on 4 February 2008.

"We urge the authorities to take a stronger line in favour of press freedom," the worldwide press freedom organisation said. "Speeches are not enough. Journalists who cover the news must have their rights protected".

"The passing of a new information law, still being examined by the regional parliament, will be a crucial first step for the future of the media in Kurdistan", it added.

Security forces arrested five journalists on 1 February near the Sengeser control post, in Suleimaniyah province, as they returned from the Kandil mountains on the Iraqi-Turkish border. Rahman Gharib was mistreated after he tried to resist the police.

"We went there the evening before to meet people who are suffering from Turkish bombing. We saw that much of the infrastructure - including schools and hospitals - has been destroyed. We interviewed the residents of isolated villages and took photos of the damage", the journalist told Reporters Without Borders.

They were arrested as they tried to rejoin several colleagues who were waiting for them. Rahman Gharib, Bayez Mohammed, of Hawlati, Salam Abdallah, of the website Kurdistan Post ( ), and freelance journalists Kerwan Salar and Mohammed Çawsin were questioned briefly. Surwan Omar, of the news agency Kurdistan News, was beaten by police when he tried to approach the group.

Elsewhere, a defamation case brought by President Jalal Talabani against the editor of "Hawlati" opened on 4 February in Suleimaniyah, 330 km north of Baghdad. Abid Aref faces up to one year in prison for carrying a report on 13 January by US researcher Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, which was highly critical of several Kurdish figures, including the Iraqi head of state. The journalist was released after paying bail of one million Dinars (approx. 558 Euros) and the trial was postponed to a later date, not yet announced.

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