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Iraq Sentences 4 French ISIS Fighters To Death

May 28, 2019
Originally published on May 28, 2019 8:25 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have some news from Iraq now. That country has sentenced six members of ISIS to death. All six are French. They're among a dozen French citizens transferred into Iraqi custody after they were captured in Syria as ISIS collapsed. Their case illustrates a big problem with the trials of former ISIS fighters. NPR's Jane Arraf has the story.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: The men left France to fight for and live under ISIS in Syria. Their journey ended in a Baghdad courtroom, sentenced to hang under Iraq's sweeping anti-terrorism laws. The prisoner sentenced on Monday, Mustafa Mohammed Ibrahim, told the judge he was brainwashed when he joined ISIS four years ago. He said he was struggling in France. And ISIS promised him work, a house and a job. Iraqi law means you can be sentenced to death just for joining a terrorist organization, even if you never carried out a violent act. The judge sentenced him to hang.

Another defendant said he had been tortured into a confession and lifted up his shirt to show scars. The judge postponed his sentencing. Human Rights Watch says torture is common to obtain confessions, which are then used to issue the death penalty.

This is Belkis Wille from Human Rights Watch by phone from Beirut.

BELKIS WILLE: The trials of ISIS suspects in Iraq are fundamentally unfair. We say this based on sitting through many of these trials over the last two years. And what we see is that defendants do not get any of their basic due process rights granted to them under international law, as well as under Iraqi law. There is absolutely no presumption of innocence when they walk into the courtroom. And many times, defendants are alleging that they have been tortured.

ARRAF: France doesn't have a death penalty. In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said it would relay its opposition to sentencing the men to death. But it also said it respected Iraqi jurisdiction. The men were handed over by Kurdish Syrian forces to Iraq because the alleged crimes were committed in Iraq and Syria.

Like other European countries, France doesn't want to bring back its citizens to put them on trial at home. They worry it would be much harder to get witnesses and evidence there and that the accused fighters could go free. It's left Kurdish Syrian forces - U.S. allies - holding 1,200 foreign fighters captured in northeast Syria and facing a huge problem.

The head of external relations there, Abdulkarim Omar, is calling for countries to create an international tribunal.

ABDULKARIM OMAR: (Through interpreter) The crimes happened in this area. And also, the witnesses, proofs and evidence are in this area. That's why it is our right, based on international laws, to be sentenced in this area.

ARRAF: Sweden is convening a meeting next week to try to get more European support for a tribunal, possibly in Iraq. In Syria, I spoke to a counter-terrorism expert, American psychologist Anne Speckhard, about why so many Europeans joined. She said some joined the call to help Muslims in Syria, while others...

ANNE SPECKHARD: Wanted to escape problems in their lives. Some people thought that they were going to a utopia, where their housing would be provided. They'd have a job. They'd live in a true Islamic state. And some people were just really sick of living under discrimination.

ARRAF: She says she believes a lot of them can be rehabilitated, but that's not a common view. The Iraqi government is putting more accused French ISIS fighters on trial this week.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

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