Alexandra Topping, Constanze Letsche — The Guardian Oct 19, 2015
A British woman who was working as the Iraq director for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) has died in an Istanbul airport, the Foreign Office has confirmed.
Former BBC journalist Jacky Sutton, 50, is understood to have been found dead in a toilet at the city’s main airport. The circumstances of her death are as yet unknown. Local media reported it appeared that Sutton, who was travelling to Irbil, northern Iraq, had killed herself after missing a flight connection, a claim colleagues said was unlikely.
The Foreign Office said it was providing consular assistance to her family.
Sutton, who spoke five languages including basic Arabic, was the acting Iraq head of the London-based IWPR, which supports local journalism in countries affected by conflict and crisis. Its previous Iraq director, Ammar Al Shahbander, was killed in a car bomb attack in Baghdad on 2 May and a memorial service was held for him in London last week.
The institute said it was trying to establish the facts of her death, which were “unclear”. In a statement, Anthony Borden, the executive director of IWPR, said the organisation was devastated at the news.
“Jacky was one of the top development professionals working on Iraq, and she devoted nearly 10 years of her life to helping the country,” he said. “She was extremely bright, highly competent, and well able to handle herself in difficult environments, and she was universally loved. We are in total shock.”
Friends and colleagues expressed their disbelief about reports in Turkish media that claimed Sutton had taken her own life after becoming distressed when she missed a flight to Iraq and did not have enough money for a new ticket. It was reported that Sutton had arrived in Istanbul on Turkish Airlines flight TK-1986 at about 10pm local time on Saturday night, and was due to fly to Irbil at about midnight, but missed her flight.
Susan Hutchinson, a fellow student at the Australian National University, where Sutton was studying for a PhD focused on international development support to female media professionals in Iraq and Afghanistan, said she did not believe Sutton took her own life, adding that the IWPR had recently “taken up work countering the anti-women messaging” of Islamic State.
She told the Guardian that Sutton was a “very tough cookie” who had worked in Afghanistan and Iraq for more than a decade and called for an independent investigation into her death. “There is a huge amount of scepticism among those that knew her that she would kill herself after missing a flight. It just doesn’t add up,” she said.
Hutchinson said she had spoken to Sutton, who was divorced with no children, a month earlier about the risky nature of the work she was doing defending women’s rights in Iraq. “When she took up the job she knew her predecessor had been killed, we knew it was a dangerous job in a dangerous country,” she said.
Paying tribute to a “passionate human being”, Hutchinson added: “She was a fierce woman, a human rights defender who stood up for democracy and spoke truth to power.” An animal-lover who took in creatures wherever she went, she was also very charming, she said. “Her work had a huge impact. She changed the lives of many people in that part of the world, particularly female journalists.”
In an email sent to the founder of online magazine Her Canberra in June, Sutton wrote about the dangers of her role. She told Amanda Whitley in an email that she had moved from accommodation provided for her in Irbil, because there was no way out if someone “came in uninvited” in order to kill her. “If Daesh wants to attack they will but it will take planning and I won’t be THE target; if the whacko wants to get to heaven he or she will have to contend with armed guards and a choice of targets, and the same with criminal kidnappers – a growth industry in Iraq,” she wrote. “It’s great to be back here and my friends in both Baghdad and Irbil have been calling me pretty much non-stop.”
Writing about her life for the site, she detailed her experiences and revealed that she had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after being arrested as a suspected spy while living for five years in Eritrea.
Sutton was a veteran journalist and media development expert, who spent two years at the BBC World Service in 1998-2000, reporting from Africa and the Middle East as well as in London. She worked for the United Nations in numerous senior roles in Afghanistan, Iran, west Africa and Gaza, and in 2008 started running a media and elections project for UNDP in Baghdad in 2008 before moving into other roles.
Others used Twitter to express their disbelief at Sutton’s death. Jane Pearce, the World Food Programme representative and country director for Iraq, said:
Mourning my friend & colleague jacky Sutton tonight. Simply don't believe the news reports.
— Jane Pearce (@JanePearceWFP) October 18, 2015
Rebecca Cooke, a journalist and international development worker, called for an international investigation into Sutton’s death. She tweeted:
Shocking and sad news about the death of Jacky Sutton in Istanbul. An intl, not just local investigation is needed.
— Rebecca Cooke (@RebeccaCooke1) October 18, 2015
Sudipto Mukerjee, a country director with the United Nations Development Programme, wrote: “Very difficult to believe that my colleague @undpiniraq staffer and seasoned traveler @JackySutton committed suicide.”
Iraqi journalist Mazin Elias, who had worked with Sutton, told Mail Online that it was “impossible” that she killed herself.
Elias said she was dedicated to developing freedom of expression in Iraq. “She continued in Iraq – everything was difficult, everything was a challenge, but she still continued,” he said. “But, what I’m sure about, the kind of person that Jacky was, it’s impossible she would have killed herself, impossible. She’s really looking for a better life for everyone. So kill herself? That’s crazy.”
Sutton was a “big manager” who was unlikely to have missed her flight, he added: “No, that’s impossible … we’re not talking about a girl. She’s a woman, an official woman, she’s a big manager.”
He alleged that Sutton may have been killed. “I’m really sad and sorry what happened, but if someone tells me ‘she killed herself’, I tell him: ‘No, that’s wrong, someone killed Jacky,’” he said.
The director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University, told the BBC the centre was “deeply saddened and shocked by the tragic death of one of its brilliant PhD students”.
Prof Amin Saika said: “She was not only an outstanding research scholar, but a highly valued friend and colleague who made remarkable contributions to the work and activities of the centre.”
The International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA), an Australian-based agency focused on women’s rights and gender equality in the Asia Pacific region, paid tribute to Sutton on Twitter. It wrote:
“Today we grieve for Jacky Sutton, a close and courageous colleague who IWDA worked with through the women, peace and security movement. Jacky Sutton was a fearless advocate for women’s rights. Her passing brings home the risks women human rights defenders face every day. Today, we are angry and grieving for Jacky Sutton. Tomorrow we’ll be seeking answers and calling for urgent action.”