PARIS, Jan 25, (AFP): European nations rarely miss a chance to slam the use of the death penalty by others, but they have largely turned a deaf ear to pleas from citizens facing execution in Iraq for fighting with the Islamic State group. Several hundred foreigners, both men and women, are thought to have been detained in Iraq since the counter-offensive that dislodged IS fighters from the country’s urban centres last year.
Diplomatic efforts to secure their return to Europe for trial have been half-hearted at best, with few politicians eager to be seen defending people who joined the terror group behind the deaths of dozens on home soil in recent years. More often they reiterate that Iraq has the sovereign right to try and punish people found guilty of killing its own citizens in an effort to create a modern “caliphate”.
The fate of European captives in Syria is even more complicated, since they have often been seized by Kurds who do not have a formally recognised state of their own. Lawyers for French fighters in Syria, for example, have claimed they are being held “arbitrarily” by non-state authorities — an argument that has failed to sway official stances so far. Faced with overwhelmingly hostile public opinion, humanitarian appeals have also made little traction, even when captives are being held with young children born after they left for Iraq and Syria.
On Sunday, an Iraqi court condemned a German woman to death by hanging after finding her guilty of belonging to IS, the first such sentence in a case involving a European woman. So far, the German government has said only that it is providing “consular support” for four of its citizens held in Iraq, declining to provide details. In December, an Iraqi-Swedish man was hanged along with 37 others accused of being IS or al-Qaeda members, despite efforts by Sweden to have the prisoner serve a life sentence instead.
“These jihadists have never had any qualms about what they’re doing, and I don’t see why we should have any for them,” French defence minister Florence Parly said Monday. Three French women captured after Iraqi forces retook the city of Mosul last July are awaiting trial in Baghdad, sources close to their cases say, and risk the death penalty as well. Two of the women are being held along with their young children. “When they are caught by local authorities, as far as possible they should be tried by these local authorities,” Parly added in a separate interview on Sunday.
Britain has also taken a firm stance against repatriation, as has Belgium, which denied a request by Tarik Jadaoun, a Belgium detained in Iraq, to be sent home in exchange for cooperating with the authorities. “I don’t see how it’s possible to negotiate with war criminals,” Prime Minister Charles Michel said in December, adding that “there can be no leniency.” Security experts generally discount the value of any intelligence offered by former extremists, while warning that bringing back their children exposes other risks. Youths exposed to decapitations and other atrocities “could be time bombs, given what they have seen,” said Paris prosecutor Francois Molins, who has overseen investigations into terror attacks on French soil.
Their names spread terror across the Islamic State group’s cross-border “caliphate”, but senior jihadists now languish in Iraqi prisons, subjects of mockery for the populace they ruled. Once boasting nicknames like the Black Box and the Butcher of Mosul, the defeated IS commanders now draw vitriol on social media while news outlets have published selfies taken by Iraqi soldiers of them being captured or marched handcuffed in prison uniforms.
Following the jihadist group’s ouster from second city Mosul last July, Iraqi forces went on the hunt for IS fighters who had fl ed the battlefield. Researchers estimate they have since put behind bars some 20,000 suspected members of the group.
The search involved digging through the rubble of war-torn Mosul and hunting through the tunnels and hideouts the jihadists had created during their three-year reign. It was in Mosul’s Old City, near the al-Nuri mosque where the selfproclaimed “caliph” Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi made his only public appearance, that the elite Counter-Terrorism Service found the senior commander nicknamed the “Black Box of IS” — a moniker that came from his lynchpin role in the organisation.
Nizam Eddin al-Rifai had sent gunmen and suicide bombers in a desperate bid to repel government troops, said Sabah al-Noman, spokesman for elite units that spearheaded the Mosul offensive. But in the end he had no choice but to surrender. Cornered by government soldiers, he left his underground hideout bare-chested, his unkempt beard matching his white hair.
Time was finally up for the notoriously hardline head judge of the “caliphate” which at its height ruled over roughly seven million people in Iraq and Syria. The 60-year-old Mosulite is still under interrogation, Noman said, adding that he could still give up valuable information about IS. Rifai’s position made him the group’s third in command, according to security sources speaking on condition of anonymity.
He also had the symbolically important role of “teaching theology to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” the jihadists’ selfproclaimed “caliph”, they said. Another infamous IS member, Mufti Abu Omar (whose real name is Ezzedine Taha Ahmed), spread terror far beyond Mosul through the group’s propaganda efforts. In one gruesome video, he appeared in military uniform. Sporting a kalashnikov rifle he ordered young people, suspected of being gay, thrown from the roof of a building to their deaths.
That clip and others earned the 62-year-old Iraqi the nickname “Butcher of Mosul”. Today, he is in the hands of the country’s security forces, who nickname him “White Beard” — facial hair he trimmed as he tried to disguise himself as troops approached. He escaped, like many jihadists, by mingling with the flood of civilians fleeing the battle-scarred city centre.