What is political activity, and is it beholden to politicians and political parties? And is it legal for a police force to close an internationally acclaimed NGO that works on a recently renewed license?
Those seem to be major questions, in relation to the sudden closure by the Kurdish security police, the Asayesh, of the offices of Yazda, an international NGO working for the cause of the Yezidi minority that has suffered greatly at the hands of the Islamic terror group ISIS.
Yazda is a large organization that has been a leader in humanitarian work and advocacy for the Yezidis, working with private and foreign donations and in close cooperation with local and international aid organisations.
Last week, the staff of Yazda at the main office in the Kurdish city of Duhok was surprised by a visit of armed security men, ordering them out on the street and even threatening the protesting director with arrest.
A women’s centre run by Yazda which offers mental support to Yezidi girls and women who escaped ISIS enslavement ISIS, was entered and closed; some vulnerable women were in the middle of therapeutic sessions when the armed men barged in.
The Asayesh ordered the medical staff at Yazda's primary health centre in one of the camps for Yezidis not to return, even though that means 14,500 people will be without medical care.
In declarations to the media, the reason for the closure was stated as ‘not working in accordance the NGO law’ and it was said that Yazda was warned about its ‘political activities.’
Yet for Yazda the assault came as a surprise, as it had not been issued any formal letter or a deadline to halt activities and had its permits for operating as an NGO in the Kurdistan Region in order.
Comments of different officials have shown that the NGO department did not file a complaint and no court order has been issued, and when asked by Rudaw, the director of the Asayesh in Duhok did not know about the closure.
What activities undertaken by Yazda have angered the authorities in such a way that a measure was taken that is not supported by democratic rules and regulations – at a time that the world is looking closely at the Kurdistan Region and its fight against ISIS?
Yazda helped the Yezidis to bring their cause into the light by supporting Nadia Murad, the former ISIS victim who told the world about her fate, became Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations, and won the European Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
It also fought for the Yezidi cause inside the Kurdistan Region, for instance by calling on the government to document mass graves found in the Yezidi province of Sinjar, and eventually starting the process itself.
After Sinjar was recaptured a year ago, Yazda has time and again called on the Kurdistan government to help the Yezidis go back to their houses and rebuild their lives.
When, after over two years in the camps, many wanted a better life, Yazda looked for opportunities for Yezidis to settle abroad.
Although some of these activities were not welcomed by the authorities in Erbil, they did not cause the rupture.
Instead, it seems that Yazda got caught up in the conflict over Sinjar between the ruling party KDP and the Turkish-Kurdish rebel group PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party).
The PKK settled in Sinjar after helping Yezidis escape from ISIS and liberating part of the province, training local Yezidi fighters, claiming local support, and setting up another base in Iraq next to the one in the Qandil mountains.
The KDP has claimed Sinjar as part of the Kurdistan Region, and is calling on the PKK to leave.
Yazda was planning to support at least 3,000 families in Sinjar with livelihood materials, as part of a larger United Nations Development Program (UNDP) project. It delivered toilets and water filters to people there and is building a school.
It appears this program runs counter to the policy of Kurdish authorities to restrict the movement of goods to Sinjar, said to be put in place for fear of those goods ending up in PKK hands.
The suggestion is that the Kurdistan government feels the Yazda program will help the PKK to strengthen its foothold in Sinjar – yet at the same time there are indications that the KDP and the PKK are presently negotiating about the latter’s departure.
Is helping people to survive and go back to their homeland to be considered as a political activity, or could it perhaps be natural for an NGO advocating the rights of Yezidis?
And are Kurdish authorities aware of the sensitivity of the Yezidi issue, and the way they are handling it, at a time it needs the support of the world to not only win the war against ISIS, but even more: to win the hearts and the minds of those it wants to rule post-ISIS?