Latest Abduction in Pattern of Enforced Disappearances
The Iraqi government should take steps to ensure the immediate and unconditional release of Elizabeth Tsurkov, a US-based scholar who was kidnapped in Iraq on March 21, 2023, four organizations including Amnesty International said today.
Tsurkov, a dual Russian and Israeli citizen, is a doctoral student in the Politics Department at Princeton University in the US. New Lines Magazine reported that she was in Iraq conducting field research on Shia movements in Iraq when she was kidnapped in the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad. Her family said that she had emergency spinal surgery to treat a herniated disc eight days before she was abducted.
“Elizabeth Tsurkov’s abduction falls within a pattern of targeted kidnappings in Iraq by state-affiliated and non-state actors, all carried out with impunity,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Iraqi government is responsible for doing everything it can to ensure her safety and release and for holding her abductors accountable.”
The Iraqi government opened an investigation into her kidnapping in July, but has yet to make any findings or progress public. The authorities should bring those suspected of criminal responsibility to justice in fair trials, the organizations said.
Tsurkov, who entered Iraq on her Russian passport on January 28, has written extensively about the Levant, particularly Iraq, Syria, Israel, and Palestine. She has over a decade of experience in volunteering and working for human rights organizations in the Middle East fighting for the rights of Palestinians, refugees and migrants, torture survivors, human trafficking victims, and ethnic and religious minorities.
Her family said that the focus of her doctoral research was the Sadrist and Tishreen movements – the political movement headed by the Shiite leader Muqtada Sadr and the mass protests that erupted in Iraq between 2019 and 2021. Tsurkov is also a fellow at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a Washington D.C.-based research organization, and a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli-Palestinian research organization based in Jerusalem.
“My sister is a kind person, a brilliant scholar, and a committed human rights activist,” Emma Tsurkov, Elizabeth’s sister, told the organizations. “Her work has always been rooted in the belief in the common humanity of every person, thoughtful listening, and understanding how people very different to her make sense of their lives.”
Emma Tsurkov told the organizations that her sister began learning Arabic after finishing her bachelor’s degree in 2011. “Elizabeth feels strongly that the true value of academic research is in building understanding among people who have a history of conflict,” she said. “That’s what drew her to Iraq, and why she committed to learning Arabic.”
Emma Tsurkov said that her family is concerned about Elizabeth’s health and well-being. “She was kidnapped a mere eight days after undergoing emergency spinal surgery,” Emma Tsurkov said. “She still had stiches in her back and was taking prescription medication. We are deeply concerned about her and want her to come back home to the United States.”
The first public reporting on the abduction that identified Elizabeth Tsurkov by name appeared on June 14, in an article in the military-focused publication 1945.
The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office issued a public statement on July 5 that said Tsurkov was being held by Kata’ib Hezbollah, though the group has publicly denied the claim. Kata’ib Hezbollah is a unit in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or Hashad), an armed group formally under the control of the prime minister since 2016. Kata’ib Hezbollah operates the 45th, 46th, and 47th Brigades of the PMF. It receives government funding and its chain of command nominally runs up to the prime minister.
Kata’ib Hezbollah armed forces have frequently disobeyed the government chain of command despite legally being organs of the Iraqi state. In 2009, the United States listed the unit as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group for attacking US forces and destabilizing Iraq. The unit has also been implicated in the killing of a respected Iraqi analyst, Hisham Al-Hashemi, in July 2020, in addition to the wave of enforced disappearances and killings of activists and protesters during the Tishreen uprising.
Enforced disappearances have been used to silence activists and protesters and have had a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Iraq, the organizations said.
Iraq is a state party to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, and is obligated to criminalize enforced disappearances, investigate them, bring those responsible to justice, and ensure reparation for victims. Enforced disappearance is currently not a crime under Iraqi law. Enforced disappearances violate a range of human rights, including the right to security and dignity of person, the right not to be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment, and the right to humane conditions of detention.
Russia and the United States should use their influence with Iraq to help secure her immediate release.
The following organizations joined the appeal for Elizabeth Tsurkov’s release:
- Amnesty International
- Democracy for the Arab World Now
- Human Rights Watch
- Scholars at Risk Network