On September 25, the day Kurds cast their historic 'yes' vote for the independence of their autonomous province from Iraq, a Chicago-based activist Reine Hanna published a damning 114-page report, with allegations of 'land grab', 'electoral fraud" and a carefully designed 'patronage system' by Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) against the minority Assyrian population in their region.
An Assyrian herself, the 25-year-old Hanna made her first visit to her ancestral homeland in Iraq late last year to write a report for the Brussels-based organization, Assyrian Confederation of Europe (ACE). Funded by the Assyrian community, which is estimated to be around 1.5 million globally, ACE lobbies for the ethnic group.
With the assistance of Matthew Barber, a PhD student at the University of Chicago, Hanna's extensive report titled "Erasing Assyrians: How the KRG Abuses Human Rights, Undermines Democracy, and Conquers Minority Homelands" details grave violations.
Being assisted by two British Assyrians, Max J. Joseph and Mardean Isaac, Hanna interviewed about a hundred Assyrian men and women living in Iraq's northern autonomous region of Kurdistan and the Christian heartland of the Nineveh Plain, as well as many internally displaced people (IDPs).
Assyrians are an ethnic group, who consider the northern Nineveh Plain in Iraq as their native homeland. Most Assyrians, who belong to different Christian denominations and have a population of about 300,000 in Iraq, want to remain part of the country but aspire for political autonomy. Complicating their political aspirations is the fact that The Nineveh Plain is currently a disputed territory between the Federal Government of Iraq and the KRG.
The ACE report seeks to raise awareness over the plight of Iraqi Christians and to expose the excesses of Kurdistan government, which has managed to project a very favorable view of its politics to an international audience, such as its 'brave women soldiers' fighting ISIS militants.
"This report is for the public, who have this very superficial and romanticized image of what the [Kurdistan Regional Government] KRG is," Hanna told Al Arabiya English. "It is meant to speak the truth and to show some of the things happening, like the removal of the mayors. These are not random acts but part of a long-term strategy."
In July, the provincial Nineveh Council dismissed the mayor of Alqosh -- a town in the Nineveh Plain -- and replaced him with a local political leader close to the KRG's President Masoud Barazani-led Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) political party ahead of the referendum.
System of patronage
Putting in place Assyrians with KDP links in power has long been part of a decade-long strategy to create a "system of patronage" to carry out policies in line with KRG, Hanna claims.
"We are witnessing this patronage system that the KDP put into effect a decade ago. We are seeing its effect now," she avers.
"The only Assyrians, who were advocating for the 'yes' vote, were those of the KDP patronage system." Despite being born and raised in Chicago, Hanna is proficient in the neo-Aramaic dialect her forefathers spoke. Her family left her town of origin in the early 1930s, following the Simele massacre, when the Kingdom of Iraq's army quelled an autonomy-aspiring Assyrian movement.
"Most of the people I spoke with believed that the Kurdish referendum has nothing to do with minorities and it was a conflict between Kurds and Arabs," she added.
The Assyrians long-sought desire to rule autonomously has already been granted by the Iraqi constitution ratified in 2005, which promises Christians their own province in the north. In addition, the Iraq's Interior Minister in 2006 also agreed upon the creation of a police force drawn from the Nineveh Plain's local population.
However, the plan for Christians to have their own province was stalled after the ISIS ran over the region in 2014, and the Interior Minister's order was blocked twice by the Nineveh Deputy governor, KDP member Khasro Goran.
"It is wrong that the KRG is taking advantage of our community's plight to pursue their nationalistic goals," she said.
The report states that over "130 illegal village and farmland seizures" of Assyrian lands have taken place under the rule of the KRG. It states that Assyrians have used "all available legal and political means," including frequent appeals to KRG courts and other bodies, against these illegal actions but to no avail.
The reported states that from 1991 to 2016 "not a single order" was "honored" to return land to its "original Assyrian inhabitants."
These land grabs have come in "various forms," including "encroachment by neighboring Kurdish villages upon the most arable portions of Assyrian farm, the confiscation of lucrative orchards, the illegal construction of homes on Assyrian property, or entire villages seized through outright aggression," the report states.
"I have spoken privately with someone who is part of the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council, created by the KDP. He agreed with everything I have said in the report. He testified to all the repression in the KRG and the discrimination," Hanna claims.
When asked about the 'patronage system', Hanna asserts that "his response was that we [Assyrians] do not have the strength to continue pursuing our own projects, this is what it is."
While lamenting the sentiments of being "second-class citizen" and that most Assyrians have "internalized" their hurt following decades of 'political repression', Hanna said: "Majority of Assyrians would say that they have enjoyed peace more in the north as opposed to the south [rest of Iraq], "but that does not mean that the north is some kind of paradise that the KRG is trying to portray."
However, Hannah agrees that Kurdistan is a more "tolerant region" compared to the rest of Iraq, where a deadly church bombing killed 58 Iraqi Christians in 2010. Still, Assyrians want to continue to be part of Iraq.
Mysterious phone calls
Hanna also makes allegations of "electoral fraud" in the stronghold Christian stronghold of Ankawa during the Kurdish referendum, where "the majority were members of the Chaldean [Catholic] church."
"We talked to a number of people in Ankawa and they said that the turnout for the referendum was very low," Hanna said. "However, towards the middle of the day people started receiving phone calls, one household after another. They were pressured and threatened to participate, and so many went to the polls."
She added: "We talked to many people in Ankawa. There is no way that the town could swing from a 'no' to 'yes' vote. The same thing happened in Alqosh where the results were tampered with and exaggerated."
Hanna also made other claims of voter fraud: "I spoke with one individual who uploaded a post on Facebook opposing the referendum and overnight it was deleted. The following day there was a new post of the same individual urging people to vote yes," she said.
"He later told me that he was directly approached by Asayish [Kurdistan intelligence and security agency] and was threatened with violence and told to remove his post." Asked what kind of violence these people are threatened with, she replied "the threats are vague."
She added: "I heard instances when someone was told 'you will pay for this with your blood'. There were also other instances, not necessarily related to referendum. A man, who was critical of KRG officials for not paying salaries, was literally taken from his family store by the Asayish officers to the top of a mountain and was warned at gunpoint never to speak against the KRG ever again."
Hannah surmised: "This is the type of culture that has been created in the KRG".
The young Assyrian also fears possible human rights violations not only against her own community but also against Kurds, who might not necessarily agree with their government.