BAGHDAD - Some of the women smiled as the judge read his rulings in a staccato, rapid-fire rhythm.
“Hanged by the neck until dead,” he said 17 times in a Baghdad court last Monday and Tuesday. At least six more wives of dead or captured foreign Islamic State fighters were sentenced to life in prison.
For some IS supporters, a death sentence can be interpreted as a good thing, according to Judge Abdul Satar Bayraqdar, spokesperson for the High Court in Baghdad. “They think if they are killed, they will be martyred to paradise,” he said.
The condemned women are among 560 foreign wives of IS fighters in Iraq, Bayraqdar said. With the women in detention are 900 children. The fathers are all dead, missing or are captured accused militants.
'Guilty'? 'I don't know'
Sophia Mohammad, 26, left her home in Turkey to live in IS-controlled Iraq with her husband and brother. Like many of the women, she carried her baby into the courtroom where they were dwarfed by the wooden cage where defendants stand trial. She wore a black traditional dress and veil, but her face was uncovered.
The judge examined the findings of the pretrial investigation and asked her if it was true that she received $50 a month from IS after her husband was killed in battle.
“It’s true my husband and my brother worked for IS, and they were killed when an airstrike hit their base,” she told the judge.
“Are you guilty or innocent?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she whispered in Turkish.
The court-appointed translator leaned and asked, “What should I tell the judge?”
Like the other women from Turkey and Azerbaijan on trial that day, she admitted to illegally entering Iraq to live among IS militants but was not accused of any direct violence. Under Iraqi law, providing support to a terrorist group can carry the same sentence as planning or executing attacks.
“I guess say I am innocent,” she answered.
About 15 minutes later, Mohammad and six other women took turns entering the cage, one by one receiving their sentences. Each woman was told she could appeal in 10 days or an automatic appeal would be filed for her in 30 days.
There were no tears or outcries when each of the six was told: “hanged by the neck until dead.”
Only babies and the smallest toddlers accompanied their mothers to court, led by a female guard wearing a red shirt and a black vest.
“We don’t know what will happen to the children if they are executed,” whispered another plain-clothed guard. “No one knows what to do.”
The children, all fatherless foreign nationals, ideally should be cared for by their home countries, according to Bayraqdar, the court spokesman. But some countries have shown no interest in collecting the offspring of IS fighters, he said.
“Consider this an invitation for countries to take care of their people,” he added.
In Mosul, the largest Iraqi city once controlled by IS, local orphans of the militants are considered ordinary victims of war and put up for adoption. Neither the children nor the prospective parents are given details about the birth parents.
But foreign children born during the three-plus years IS held cities, towns and villages in Iraq may be hopelessly stigmatized if they stay in the country, according to Sukaina Mohammed, director of the Department of Women and Children in the Nineveh province of Iraq.
“We send the foreign children to Baghdad,” she said in a January interview in Mosul. “It is extremely complicated.”
Leaving children in detention with mothers that support IS is also a terrible option, Bayraqdar added.
“Some of the women have told us they will raise their children to bring back the Islamic State,” he said.
In the courtroom, Imran Ali, a Turkish woman in her 20s, portrayed IS as defenders of piety. She admitted to supporting IS and entering Iraq illegally, but pleaded innocent because in her eyes, neither were wrong.
“We came to live in the Islamic State,” she told the judge. “In my country, I couldn’t even dress in a proper religious way.”
Some other women denied their husbands were involved with IS, or said they did not know what the men did for work. None condemned the group.
“I am innocent,” Ali said. “I haven’t done anything to even be accused.”
“Then why are you in a cage here in Baghdad?” the judge retorted. “Did we invite you here? Or did you come to Iraq to help IS in Mosul?”
Ali’s public trial lasted about five minutes before she was sentenced to death. Judges said the brief trials follow months of investigations and are followed by a lengthy appeals process as each case is reviewed by dozens of officials.
But with thousands of accused militants awaiting trials, along with hundreds of foreign wives and children and a public still reeling from the horrors of IS rule, swift justice is a priority. IS rule and the battles that ensued forced millions of people to flee their homes, left tens of thousands of people dead and many more traumatized.
Now, one courtroom — a panel of three judges — can try and sentence a dozen or more cases in a single day.
And for the judges, every day they spend sentencing militants is another day of danger.
Since 2003, when extremist militant attacks increased dramatically in Iraq, eventually leading to the creation of IS, 65 judges and 160 other judicial department employees have been killed.
“If I am not threatened for a long time I get worried,” Bayraqdar saud. “Something is very wrong.”
Rapid and fair justice would benefit all Iraqis, according to lawyer Fouad Ahmed Ferman outside the courthouse. But while the current trials are fast, they are also often deeply flawed, he added.
“There are no witnesses,” he said. “People can be sentenced when there is no evidence. People can be freed when there is evidence.”
In the end, he added: “God will judge us all.”