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Islamic State Trials: Iraqi Judges Seek Justice Amid Disorder, Danger


An Islamic State militant is detained in Mosul, Iraq, July 5, 2017. While many IS militants fought to the death in Mosul, some suspects were detained or surrendered during ongoing fighting.

"Execution is not enough punishment for Islamic State militants," said Amar Hazzam, 45, who sells cheese and yogurt at a street market in Mosul. A few vegetable sellers gather around him and nod. "It doesn't even compare to what they did to us."

About 10 kilometers outside of the city in the town of Tal Kef, thousands of suspected militants are being processed through trials that judges say are fair, despite public outcry for revenge.

Judges dismiss criticism from human rights groups that say short trials and overly-broad prosecutions violate the rights of the accused. But they say disorganization, a lack of resources and considerable dangers slow down the process, delaying punishment for the guilty, freedom for the innocent and healing for the public.

A medic takes a break outside a makeshift hospital near a battle zone in one of Mosul's many destroyed neighborhoods, July 5, 2017.
A medic takes a break outside a makeshift hospital near a battle zone in one of Mosul's many destroyed neighborhoods, July 5, 2017.

"We are doing our best to work fast," said one lawyer, who does not want to be named because he has been threatened for defending IS members. "We know there are innocent as well as guilty people being detained."

The jails will not empty out when these trials are finished, he adds. Tens of thousands of names are still on lists of suspected militants at large.

Victims call for harsh punishments

At the market, Hazzam and his colleagues bristle at questions about human rights and fair trials for detained IS suspects.

"Who cares?" balked Hazzam. "See over there, right there, I saw a woman stoned by militants. She was accused of having unmarried sex but they showed no evidence."

The woman, he says, was badly injured when one militant declared her punishment complete. Another militant argued that she deserved to die and shot her in the head.

Everyone in the growing crowd has a story about loved ones they lost living under IS and in the brutal nine-month battle that ended their rule. They tell tales of injuries, humiliation, physical suffering and horrors they can never un-see.

During battles, civilians — many of them children — who were hit by mortars, bullets and airstrikes from all sides flooded into makeshift hospitals like this one in Mosul, Iraq, Jan. 8, 2017.
During battles, civilians — many of them children — who were hit by mortars, bullets and airstrikes from all sides flooded into makeshift hospitals like this one in Mosul, Iraq, Jan. 8, 2017.

As 18-year-old Mohammad sprinkles water on his cart of lettuce, he says he lost an uncle, a cousin and his 10-year-old brother in the battles. His mother and sister still have shrapnel in their bodies, and some of his neighbors died from lack of food.

"It's obvious the militants deserve to be executed," he said.

Short trials

But at the courthouse, trials are so swift they have drawn scathing reviews from Human Rights Watch, which calls them "haphazard" and "rampant" with due process violations.

Mohammad Awad, a suspected IS militant, faces three judges, his gaunt frame dwarfed by a dirty yellow jumpsuit. Unbound behind his back, his hands tremble when his confession is read out loud.

"I was tortured. I was forced to confess," he protests. "I don't even know the words to the oaths they take."

The paper says Awad confessed to attending weapons training with IS, swearing loyalty to self-proclaimed "Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, punishing civilians for infractions of draconian IS rules, and fighting against Iraqi soldiers.

Less than a half hour after the trial begins, Awad is sentenced to hang until dead, pending an automatic appeal.

"Do you have anything else to say?" one judge asked. Awad leaves the room looking tired, but unsurprised.

Missing detainees

The Tal Kef court can hear as many as 15 cases in a day, judges say, but on this day only five suspects appear. Sometimes even fewer cases are heard because detainees are not brought to the court.

Soldiers show off captured suspected militants in Mosul, Iraq, July 5, 2017. Officials say most suspects in custody were not captured in battle, but as they tried to blend into the population after the war.
Soldiers show off captured suspected militants in Mosul, Iraq, July 5, 2017. Officials say most suspects in custody were not captured in battle, but as they tried to blend into the population after the war.

"We have computers and technology, but the system is not good," said Judge Jamal Dowd Sinjari, who heads the proceedings.

Two days later, court closes early for lack of present suspects. After one man is sentenced to 15 years in prison for IS membership, another case is postponed because a witness is sick. A final name is read, and guards say the man is not in the building. A judge calls the police on his mobile phone to find out where he is.

"He's been transferred to Baghdad," Sinjari explained to his colleagues when he gets off the phone. "I'm 98 percent sure that there will be no more cases today," he said.

Outside the courthouse, a guard says the lack of defendants is a constant mystery to him. Perhaps they cannot find the right suspects to match the files in Mosul's many prisons, he suggests.

"But we don't know exactly what the problem is," he said. "Sometimes they tell us they don't have a car to transport the prisoner."

Dangerous justice

Being a justice official in Mosul has long been a dangerous job, as IS and their predecessors — al-Qaida and other groups — began targeting judges and lawyers long before they took over territory.

Families flee battles as Iraqi forces move in to fight Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq, Jan. 18, 2017.
Families flee battles as Iraqi forces move in to fight Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq, Jan. 18, 2017.

In 2014, when IS swept into Iraq and Syria snatching up cities, towns, villages and swaths of the countryside, judges were among the first to be attacked.

"We fled our home when they came in," explained Salim Mohammed Norri, the chief justice for Nineveh province, in his Mosul office. "They took my house right after I left. If I had stayed only a few more hours, God knows what would have happened."

And while IS has lost nearly all of its territory, attacks continue, with 27 people killed in bombings in Baghdad this week.

"We could be attacked by Islamic State militants in hiding," explained the defense attorney who did not want to be named for security purposes. "Or I could be attacked by IS victims, angry that militants are being defended."

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