A 10-Minute Trial, a Death Sentence: Iraqi Justice for ISIS Suspects

“These Islamic State criminals committed crimes against humanity and against our people in Iraq, in Mosul and Salahuddin and Anbar, everywhere,” said Gen. Yahya Rasool, the spokesman for the Iraqi joint operations command. “To be loyal to the blood of the victims and to be loyal to the Iraqi people, criminals must receive the death penalty, a punishment that would deter them and those who sympathize with them.”

But critics say the perfunctory trials in special counterterrorism courts are sweeping up bystanders and relatives as well as fighters, and executing most of them in a process more concerned with retribution than justice.

The office for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that flaws in the judicial process would most likely lead to “irreversible miscarriages” of justice.


Detainees suspected of being Islamic State fighters in the courthouse in Qaraqosh, Iraq, last year. Detainees have often been sentenced to death after quick trials in special counterterrorism courts.

Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Human Rights Watch has criticized Iraq for relying on an overly broad law to quickly achieve the maximum punishment of the most people.

The nation’s counterterrorism law allows the death penalty for anyone “who commits, incites, plans, finances or assists in acts of terrorism.” So Iraqi courts are meting out one-size-fits-all punishment for the perpetrator of crimes against humanity as well for as the wife of an Islamic State fighter who may have had little say in her husband’s career.

“Individual circumstances don’t matter,” said Belkis Wille, the senior researcher for Iraq for Human Rights Watch. “Cooks, medical workers, everyone is given the death penalty.”

The low bar for conviction under the law, she said, also means that the courts are not bothering to investigate some of the worst crimes believed to have been committed by Islamic State members, such as slavery, rape or extrajudicial killings.

Iraq’s Justice Ministry rejects such criticism and touts the integrity of its judges and its standards of due process. “If there is evidence then suspects are prosecuted, and if there is no evidence then they are released,” said Abdul-Sattar al-Birqdar, a judge and Justice Ministry spokesman.

The government has not released statistics about its terrorism detainees, but two people familiar with the court who were not authorized to speak to journalists said that approximately 13,000 people had been detained on suspicion of ties to the Islamic State since 2017, when the vast majority of arrests were made.

Human Rights Watch estimated in December that at least 20,000 people accused of ties to the Islamic State were being held by the Iraqi authorities. Last month, The Associated Press reported that Iraq had detained or imprisoned at least 19,000 people since 2014 on accusations of connections to the Islamic State or other terrorism-related offenses.

Many of these detainees were arrested on the battlefield. Some were detained far from combat, based on information gleaned from informers and prison interrogations.


Displaced men from Hawija line up at a Kurdish screening center in Dibis, Iraq, last year. Kurdish intelligence officers tried to sort out who was with the Islamic State and who was not.

Bram Janssen/Associated Press

Iraqi intelligence officials say that high-value detainees, people accused of involvement in specific terrorist attacks, are held separately from the majority of prisoners, who are suspected of having been low-level cogs in the Islamic State bureaucracy.

Since the summer of 2017, more than 10,000 cases have been referred to the courts, the people familiar with the court said. To date, they said, approximately 2,900 trials have been completed, with a conviction rate of about 98 percent.

They did not say how many had received the death penalty, nor how many executions had been carried out.

The government said 11 people were executed on Monday for “terrorism crimes,” fulfilling “the government’s promise to kill those responsible for shedding Iraqi blood,” the Justice Ministry said in a statement.

Among those held apart from the general prison population are approximately 1,350 foreign women and 580 children, the majority of whom surrendered to Iraqi security forces last August during military operations to liberate the town of Tal Afar. The vast majority of these detainees are Turkish, Russian and Central Asian.

Iraq says it is determined to try them if evidence links them to the Islamic State, but some of their home countries, including Saudi Arabia, have requested extradition for some of their citizens. Other countries, like Britain and France, have been reluctant to take their citizens back, officials from both countries said.

In rare cases, individuals have been returned to their home countries, such as a group of four Russian women and 27 children in February, after Iraqi authorities concluded they had been tricked into coming to Islamic State territory. Turkey has been working to repatriate minors whose parents took them to the caliphate, as well as those found innocent of wrongdoing.

For a nation that for more than 15 years has been an incubator for Islamist extremists and has been torn apart by terrorist bombings, Iraqis have little appetite for leniency or concern about mitigating circumstances that in other nations could be grounds for clemency. Foreigners in particular are widely assumed to have been the Islamic State’s most fervent adherents since they moved here to join the caliphate.


Adlan, a child brought to Syria by his parents, returned to Russia an orphan and now lives with his grandparents in Grozny. Some countries have been reluctant to repatriate citizens involved with the Islamic State, while others have taken in some women and children.

Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

“What concerns me the most in these trials is that the system is fundamentally prejudiced against foreign individuals,” said Ms. Wille, who has observed dozens of terrorism trials. “The presumption is because you are foreign, and you were in ISIS territory, there is no need to provide more evidence.”

The 14 women convicted in one afternoon this month, 12 Turks and two Azerbaijanis ranging from 20 to 44 years old, had lived in Raqqa, the former capital of the group’s territory in Syria. When international airstrikes escalated there and several of their husbands were killed, they moved to Iraq and were among those who surrendered outside Tal Afar.

Gaunt, withdrawn and surrounded by plainclothes security guards, they waited in the florescent-lit hallways of Baghdad’s counterterrorism court for their trials to start. Eleven toddlers who had spent the last eight months in detention with their mothers accompanied them to the court.

When Ms. Hassan was called, she handed her child to another detainee to look after. The other women cooed and hummed to try to placate her curly-haired toddler. Some appeared to whisper prayers.

Their state-appointed lawyer, Ali Sultan, said he had not prepared for the trials. He said he had no access to the evidence against his clients because information related to terrorism investigations is classified.

He added that his pay — $25 regardless of whether the case goes to appeal — hardly encourages much effort. The fee is paid only after the final appeal is exhausted or the client is executed which, despite the push to expedite trials, can take months if not years.

After Ms. Hassan was sentenced by Judge Ahmed al-Ameri, he swiftly dispensed with the rest of the docket.

Negar Mohammed told him that she was innocent of all Islamic State crimes; he ruled otherwise.

Nazli Ismail told the judge that her husband pushed her family to go to Syria. Three of her children were killed in an airstrike, she said. The only one to survive was her youngest, a 2-year-old boy named Yahya, who was waiting outside in the hallway.

Judge Ameri asked, “Are you innocent or guilty?”

“I’m innocent,” Ms. Ismail replied.

The judge sentenced her to death.

Ms. Ismail accepted her fate with a smile. “This means I will finally go to heaven,” she said.

Mother and child left the courthouse under armed guard. It was unclear what would happen to the child.

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After Months of Acrimony, Baghdad Strikes Deal With Kurds

In an interview outside his home village on Tuesday, Masoud Barzani, the former president of the Iraqi Kurdish region and still a central political figure, struck his own note of conciliation and hailed this week’s agreement as a “breakthrough.”

“It is important to find a new formula for our mutual benefit, so that we, as two good neighbors in full confidence with each other, can move forward,” he said. “We hope that such a breakthrough can help alleviate some of the economic hardships that our people are suffering right now.”

Mr. Abadi offered his own good-will gestures that he said were aimed at proving to the Kurds that he considered them a vital part of the stronger, united Iraq that he hopes to build after the victory over Islamic State last year.


International flights resumed this week at Kurdish airports for the first time since Baghdad banned them in September.

Safin Hamed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

His government declared a two-day national holiday for the Kurdish new year, a tradition that predates Islam and is not celebrated by Iraq’s Arab majority. On Tuesday, Mr. Abadi delivered a brief holiday greeting in Kurdish, a first for an Iraqi leader despite the fact that Kurdish and Arabic have both been official languages of Iraq for years.

“I want to congratulate our Kurdish citizens in Kurdish,” he said during his weekly news conference in Baghdad. “I don’t speak it, but it is meant to prove that Iraq is one and united. We don’t want a return to division.”

Iraq’s Kurds, who account for the majority of three northern Iraqi provinces, have long dreamed of independence, a goal that they hoped would accelerate after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The referendum held in September came after years of acrimony with the central government in Baghdad over oil revenues and the control of borders and security in the Kurdish region.

Baghdad opposed the vote, which threatened to sheer off a strategically important northern border region at a time when the government was fighting the Islamic State for a third of the country.

Although relations between Baghdad and Erbil have normalized again, major differences remain. Most Kurdish leaders still espouse independence and the two sides have yet to work out a formula for sharing federal oil revenue.

Iraq’s Kurdish region is mired in an economic crisis driven by many causes, including its reliance on public sector jobs as political patronage, a reputation for corruption and the lack of clarity about the legality of oil deals the Kurdish government signed with international oil companies.

Kurdish leaders have not paid full salaries to government employees in almost two years, since Baghdad cut budget payments in response to the Kurds keeping revenue from local oil deals. The Kurdish security forces, known as the pesh merga, have been paid by the American-led coalition, which depended on them to help defeat the Islamic State.

The Kurdish government has insisted it lacked the money to pay these salaries, although it has never released an audit of its own substantial oil revenues.

Even this week’s salary deal does not seem to have fully resolved the problem.

Civil servants in Erbil reported Monday that they only received half of their monthly salary, leading to questions and recriminations about which set of politicians — Erbil or Baghdad — weren’t holding up their end of the bargain.


Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, seen here in Mosul, Iraq, this month, delivered a holiday greeting in Kurdish to prove that “Iraq is one and united.”

Iraqi Prime Minister’s Office, via Reuters

A statement from the Kurdish regional government cited by Kurdish media on Monday blamed Baghdad for not sending enough money to cover the wages.

Mr. Abadi said Tuesday that his government paid what it had agreed to.

A Kurdish government spokesman said Wednesday that the government would meet after the holiday to assess its cash flow and decide what to do about its portion of the salary bill.

Despite the uneven rollout of the salary payments, the other part of the deal came off without hitch.

On Monday, the first international flights landed in Erbil since the October crisis, one from Jidda, Saudi Arabia, and the other from Dubai. Other regional carriers said they would resume their flight schedules soon. Baghdad’s demands that Erbil end its longstanding flouting of Iraqi visa rules appear to have been accepted, officials said, but the control of customs in Kurdish area airports still need to be worked out.

Around Erbil, even the partial payment of wages lifted spirits, providing a much-needed cash injection to the local economy and some hope for the end of the political crisis.

Burhan Dabbagh, 56, said he was seeing greater demand at his clothing shop in Erbil’s old city, as more shoppers had disposable income for holiday purchases. He credited Mr. Abadi.

“We rely on Baghdad for our entire well-being,” Mr. Dabbagh said. “It’s the best of solutions that we could have hoped for.”

Other shopkeepers in Erbil’s old city expressed similar pro-Abadi views, citing his management of the political crisis in addition to their disgruntlement with local Kurdish leaders and what many see as their long history of corruption.

Yet some civil servants said they feared that their well-being would continue to be a political Ping-Pong ball, especially with national parliamentary elections coming in May, since the underlying political disputes have not been solved.

Speaking of both governments, in Baghdad and Erbil, Safeen Daher, a 49-year-old driver for the Ministry of Education in Erbil, said: “We are victims between them and their politics.”

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