Samira, a fair-skinned, green-eyed woman from Azerbaijan, met her Turkish husband on social media. “Our first rendezvous was in Turkey,” she told Judge Suheil Abdallah at her first hearing at the Central Criminal Court in Baghdad. “We got married, and we decided to go to live in Syria. It was 2015. We lived almost one year in Syria and one year in Iraq, where we were then divorced.” Dressed in the women’s pink uniform of the Iraqi Correctional Center, which is the prison for women north of Baghdad, she was with her 2-year-old daughter, Safiya. Samira said she was not aware of committing a crime. “Where’s your husband now?” the judge asked. “I don’t know. I lost news of him during the battle of Mosul in 2017,” she replied.
According to the 2005 Iraqi Counterterrorism Law, prisoners could be given a sentence of 15 years to life or the death penalty. Women of foreign nationality who lived in Iraq under the Islamic State’s (IS) rule risk spending 20 years in prison, which is the term of life imprisonment in Iraq.
There are no witnesses or evidence in Samira’s trial that could change her fate. Many Russian women are waiting their turn to see the judge, however, the Russian translator is not available every day, and so they wait. “The translators, whether French or Russian or Turkish, are not always there, and women and children wait in vain,” Judge Abdallah told Al-Monitor.
Up to 1,000 women are believed to be held in Baghdad, together with 820 infants. The women are accused of being IS affiliates. At the same time, in the same court, male cells are always full, as the men wait for their turn as well to see the judges. Seventy percent of the men are accused of being IS members and have already passed investigation hearings in other smaller courts. The other 30% are ordinary criminals: A man who stole a car waits next to one who could have committed war crimes.
Judge Abdallah begins hearing cases at 9 a.m. and finishes at 3 p.m., Sunday to Thursday. “With IS fighters, it will not end soon. We will have them at least for the next year,” Firas al-Khazali, a lawyer at the court, told Al-Monitor. An estimated number of 20,000 people are detained in prisons throughout Iraq. A large majority of the prisoners were arrested during the long battle for Mosul and the military campaign leading to the clearing of IS from the one-third of Iraqi territory it has occupied for three years. Approximately 3,000 trials have been completed, with 98% of the prisoners convicted.
Wearing the brown uniform of the prison, Ahmed claims to be innocent. The allegations about him are based on reports from secret informers. The judge begins with a lot of questions: “Did you work for the Islamic police?” “No, sir,” Ahmed answered. The judge continued, “Did you go to military school? Did you participate in terrorist actions? Did you fight in battle? Did you get a salary from IS?” “No, sir. They took me on the street. They forced me. I'm innocent,” Ahmed said. Ahmed was sentenced to life imprisonment.
On average, the hearings last 10 minutes and the prisoners’ lives depend on that quick questioning. About 300 executions have already been carried out. “The problem is that the confessions are often pushed out under torture, but many people are really innocent and have no chance to defend themselves or to save themselves,” Khazali explained to Al-Monitor. “The judges and the attorneys are in turn afraid of retaliation as well as being accused of being IS supporters if by chance they try to defend a possible innocent.”
A lawyer who talked to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity does not see other solutions. He said, “The Western world and human rights organizations criticize us for fast trials and for the death penalty, but I have been working on this issue for 15 years. There is no treatment for extremists. They have changed their name but have not changed their minds. There is no prison that can change their life purpose and their desire to die.”
Although last December the Iraqi government claimed victory over IS in Iraq, its presence throughout the country can still be felt. Terrorist attacks on a weekly basis in different provinces continue to shake Iraq, while security forces make daily arrests of IS members in Mosul and in all of Iraq. At the Syrian-Iraqi borders, in the desert areas where most of the survived fighters — the ones who escaped — are believed to operate, the battle never ended. But the longest battle in Iraq will be the one of justice. In August 2018, a UN team of investigators began collecting evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide (Yazidi people and other minorities) for use in Iraqi courts. The Iraqi government has not approved the UN team to investigate war crimes committed by the Iraqi army and militias during the battle against IS.
“If we don’t investigate the war crimes and if we don’t listen to the innocents, IS will change its name, but not its face,” Khazali concluded.