The death sentence that drags Dua back into a bloody feud

The Iraqi government's decision to reassert its authority by executing the men who stoned to death Dua Khalil Aswad threatens more sectarian bloodshed.
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The Independent Online

The circumstances surrounding the stoning to death of Dua Khalil Aswad by members of northern Iraq's ancient and tightly knit Yazidi sect were, in some ways, like those of many other so-called "honour killings".

Dua was accused of converting to Islam so she could marry the Sunni Muslim man she was in love with; the killing took place in public, in the town of Bashika, and a large crowd watched her die.

But one thing marked Dua's death out: as she struggled against her tormentors, several members of the crowd took footage of the violence on mobile phones. The killing is the only one to have been filmed, and the circulation of a video online prompted a new rise in tensions between the Yazidis and Muslims in northern Iraq.

Now four men have been found guilty of carrying out the attack, and sentenced to death themselves. Their planned execution has deepened hostilities, with many Yazidis fearing there will be a recurrence of the tit-for-tat killings which followed Dua's murder three years ago. These included 23 elderly Yazidi workers from a textile factory in nearby Mosul who were ordered off a bus and shot dead. Other Yazidis, including 800 students from Mosul university, were forced to flee. The killing of the girl may also have played a role in provoking a devastating suicide bomb attack on two Yazidi villages in which at least 300 people died.

The case also raises the issue of the punishment of those carrying out such crimes who in the past have been treated with great leniency by police and the courts. The death sentences have still to be confirmed by the Iraqi Supreme Court over the next month. Two of those who were found guilty last month are cousins of the dead girl, named as Aras Farid Salim and Wahid Farid Salim. "Some of her relatives came to me recently and asked for me to help get the death sentences commuted, but I refused because I agree with the verdict," says Khasro Goran, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Nineveh province where the killing took place.

The case is complicated as Nineveh is deeply divided between religious and ethnic groups. The main division is between Arabs and Kurds but the Kurdish community includes 350,000 Yazidis whose secretive faith incorporates Islamic, Jewish, Christian, Gnostic and Zoroastrian beliefs. The steps leading up to the murder of the Yazidi girl began when she fell in love with the son of a teacher in Bashika, who like her was Kurdish but unlike her was a Sunni Muslim. Dua is alleged to have fled her home, converted to Islam in order to marry him and taken refuge with a Sunni cleric.

The cleric received messages that her family had forgiven her and it was safe for her to come home. Her parents may have meant this sincerely – but other relatives were less forgiving. On 7 March 2007 Dua tried to go back to her home in Bashika, a town of 20,000 which contains both Yazidis and Muslims. Instead of being greeted by her parents, she was faced by a furious lynch mob of 2,000 led by some of her cousins.

Several mobile phone videos recorded her death. They show Dua, a pretty dark-haired girl dressed in a red tracksuit top and black underwear, lying on the ground with blood streaming from her face. When she tries to get up she is kicked and struck on the head with a lump of concrete. Armed uniformed police stand around but do not intervene, and many in the crowd hold up their phone-cameras to record the grisly scene. Nobody tries to help her.

The lynching had immediate political implications because the hitherto pacific Yazidis were targeted by Sunni Muslims from both the Kurdish and Arab communities in Nineveh. The Kurdish leadership tried to contain retaliation against the Yazidis because it feared a damaging split among the Kurds. Nineveh is outside the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), but Bashika and other places where the Yazidis live are effectively under the control of the KRG in Arbil, which tried with some success to cool the situation.

The Yazidis are worried that the execution of the four men found guilty of Dua's murder will lead to heightened tensions with Muslims in their area. They also think that it is unfair that members of their community should be singled out for punishment when others believed to have carried out honour killings are allowed to walk free. The execution of four of Dua's killers would mean that the government is determined to implement the law, though this might lead to a renewed surge in sectarian violence.

Who are the yazidis?

*The Yazidis are Kurds who have their own non-Islamic religion, which has elements of many other faiths including ancient Persian religions. They have been persecuted in the past by Muslim rulers calling them "devil worshippers", something they deny.

Their complex belief system, which includes seven angels led by the Peacock Angel, gives members of the Yazidis a strong sense of group identity. Too much contact with non-Yazidis is seen as polluting and to be avoided. Almost all other faiths in the region have contributed something to the Yazidi religion, including Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam, and Gnosticism. Taboos are said to include eating lettuce.

There are small Yazidi minorities in other parts of the region but they are being depleted by emigration and absorption. Most of the 350,000-strong Yazidi community in Iraq lives in Nineveh province outside Mosul. Many of them are poor farmers and have been targeted by suicide bombers from al-Qa'ida in Iraq since 2003 as Kurds and non-Muslims.