[Published here April 10, 2019]
Iraq has offered to put on trial hundreds of accused foreign jihadists in Baghdad in exchange for millions of dollars, potentially solving a legal conundrum for Western governments but sparking rights concerns.
Western countries have been rocked by fierce public debate over whether to repatriate citizens who joined the Islamic State group, which held swathes of Iraq and Syria for years before losing its last speck of land last month.
Around 1,000 suspected foreign IS fighters are in detention in northeast Syria, in addition to around 9,000 foreign women and children in Kurdish-run camps there.
Iraq has submitted a proposal to the US-led coalition that fought the jihadists, offering to try and sentence foreign IS suspects in exchange for operational costs, three Iraqi officials told AFP.
“These countries have a problem, here’s a solution,” one said, speaking anonymously because he was not authorised to give details to the press.
The source said Iraq had proposed a rate of $2 million per suspect per year, a calculation based on the estimated per-capital detention costs in the US-run Guantanamo Bay prison.
“We made the proposal last week but have not gotten a response yet,” the source added.
A second official said Iraq had requested $2 billion to try the suspects as “one of several options”, and could ask for “more money to cover the costs of their detention”.
– ‘Special tribunal’? –
Iraq has already tried several hundred IS foreign jihadists and handed down death sentences to around 100, none of which has been carried out.
Other IS suspects have been condemned to life in Iraqi prison, including 58-year-old Frenchman Lahcen Ammar Gueboudj and two other French nationals.
At least 12 French nationals are in Iraqi custody awaiting trial after being transferred from Syria in February.
Detainees from as many as 52 countries could be tried by Baghdad under the arrangement, a third Iraqi official told AFP.
“Iraq proposed to the coalition setting up a special tribunal to try foreigners. There’s been a constructive beginning to those discussions,” the source said.
But establishing the court could be complicated, the official said, with questions over whether international funding for it would preclude implementation of death sentences.
The source added that Iraq proposed the arrangement to the US-led coalition as a whole because it was simpler than negotiating with individual countries.
The US-led coalition did not immediately respond to AFP’s request for comment.
Transferring foreign fighters to Iraq for trial appears to resolve a thorny legal debate for Western powers.
On the one hand, the Kurdish-run administration in northern Syria has said it does not have the capacity to try all foreigners, calling for an international tribunal to be established there.
But it is not an internationally recognised government, so jurisdiction is dubious.
On the other hand, repatriation is a politically-fraught issue, and governments fear they may not have enough evidence to convict IS members who claim they did not fight.
– ‘Real risk of torture’ –
Enter Baghdad, which has claimed legal jurisdiction over any individual who joined extremist groups that has committed crimes in Iraq, even if that person did not pick up arms.
And last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi hinted Baghdad could have jurisdiction over jihadists who were in Syria but never entered Iraq, “because as you know the battlefields became one”.
But Human Rights Watch has warned that transferring suspects to Iraq could be “problematic”.
“Our first and main concern with these transfers are the reality of Iraqi proceedings, which in summary provide no clear right to a fair trial and a real risk of torture,” said HRW’s Iraq researcher Belkis Wille.
Instead, Wille said countries whose nationals may have joined IS should be investigating and trying them at home.
She cited the case of a 27-year-old German woman who went on trial this week in Munich for letting a five-year-old Yazidi girl die of thirst under IS.
And other foreign IS suspects have been transferred via Iraq to their home countries for detention.
Otherwise, Wille added, “if countries want their nationals to be tried in Iraq, they should be much more heavily invested in improving the judicial system so that people have a fair trial and the risk of torture isn’t as significant.”