The Montreal man who says that he and his non-profit group have rescued 128 Yazidis and Christians from enslavement by Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq is fighting back against those questioning his claims.
The attorney for Steve Maman, president of the Montreal-based group The Liberation of Yazidi and Christian Children of Iraq (CYCI), has sent the group of Yazidi activists and spiritual leaders that is demanding an inquiry into his claims a cease and desist letter ordering them to stop talking to or about him — and threatening to sue them for $5,000,000 if they don't.
This week, VICE News first reported on an open letter sent to Maman — who has been dubbed the "Jewish Schindler" by the press — from 20 Yazidi leaders and experts in Iraq and the US that demanded CYCI cease taking donations until it provides evidence of its work. The group making the demand includes the Yazidi's top spiritual figure, Baba Sheikh, and a Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament, Vian Dakhil.
"[I]t is imperative that any organization claiming to conduct such a high-level project, especially one that deals so visibly with such sensitive problems, recognize the need for accountability and open itself to the scrutiny of the leadership of the Yazidi community," the letter from the Yazidis says.
The group threatened to contact the Canadian authorities with their concerns if Maman did not meet their demands within 48 hours.
On Thursday, Maman's attorney, David Ettedgui, sent the Yazidi group a letter ordering them to "unequivocally and immediately cease and desist from any further communication with my clients and that you each refrain from making any further mention or reference whatsoever pertaining to C.Y.C.I. or to Mr. Steve Maman."
The cease and desist, obtained by VICE News, is addressed to all signatories of the open Yazidi letter — except to Baba Sheikh — and concludes with, "DO GOVERN YOURSELVES ACCORDINGLY."
But the group of Yazidis isn't backing down.
Matthew Barber, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago whose research focuses on the Yazidi community and who also signed the open letter, told VICE News in an interview that Steve's response to their demands is "dismissing the concerns of the key leaders of the Yazidi community and is conveying that he will not engage on this issue nor provide the requested evidence."
"Yazidi leaders and advocates made one straightforward request: That Mr. Maman provide evidence to confirm his claims of having rescued so many people," Barber said. "Recent articles have raised the question as to whether Mr. Maman's interactions with IS could land him in trouble with the law, but our question remains more fundamental: has he even performed his alleged rescues in the first place?"
Steve Maman told VICE News in a phone interview on Friday that his group would provide evidence to support their work "if there is a formal request that comes from the government of Kurdistan."
"The letter we have that we got from them [the Yazidis] where we answer with this letter [the cease and desist letter], it's a reply to a letter that's not even signed by anybody. You have members of parliament whose names are on there, but there's no signature," he said. "Why should I answer somebody's letter that doesn't even have a letterhead on it, that has no authority to represent anybody?"
As part of its original report, VICE News asked Maman for proof showing that he had rescued 128 people. Maman showed VICE News around 20 photos of men, women and children and said it was more evidence than other rescuers had provided.
But on Friday, Maman's group emailed a statement to VICE News, also published on his group's Facebook page, in which it makes a distinction between the women and children he says he rescued with his own money, and those that were saved with money raised by CYCI.
"Steve Maman used his personal finances to rescue women and children in the beginning, approximately 8 months ago," the statement reads. "Steve Maman also reached out to fellow business contacts for donations. Together they privately liberated approximately 100 women and children … At this time, CYCI was not formed."
The statement goes on to say that "the proof of work provided to VICE News represents CYCI, not Steve Maman's private rescues," and it promises more evidence soon.
"We have been very cooperative and only ask for the same in return from non-profit NGO groups working in Iraq. We will also respond to the Yazidi Leaders and send them our updated proof of work."
Last August, IS officially launched its campaign to capture Yazidi women and girls as slaves. In 2014, approximately 5,270 Yazidis were abducted and it's believed that more than 3,100 are still being held in captivity.
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne