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French ISIS Supporters on Death Row in Iraq Ask for Mercy

BAGHDAD — The French government came under criticism Monday from human rights advocates as Iraqi terrorism courts completed the trials of 11 French citizens and one French resident, sentencing all of them to death for support of the Islamic State.

Human rights advocates believe that the Iraqi law, which criminalizes belonging to a terrorist organization, falls short in delivering justice because it does not consider the underlying crime.

By failing to address that, both the rights of the accused and the victims get short shrift, said Belkis Wille, the senior researcher for Iraq for Human Rights Watch.

“You don’t have a real examination of what the defendants did,” Ms. Wille said. “Some of them were war criminals but you have a trial and conviction and sentencing without anyone finding out what war crimes they were implicated in.”

This approach also makes it impossible to modulate the punishments to reflect the gravity of the crime, she said.

Forty five prominent French defense lawyers signed a letter published on France Info that blasted the government, saying it violated the constitution by risking the execution of its citizens and more generally using the threat of terrorism to justify an overall erosion of protections for suspects and detainees.

But French government officials said the trials had been fair and implied that there could be more cases to come. There are some 450 French citizens in camps in Syria who joined the Islamic State, according to France’s Foreign Ministry.

“These are people who left French territory to combat France among others, and they are guilty of terrible violence, notably in Iraq,” said Laurent Nuñez, the junior interior minister, to Le Parisien newspaper.

“This is a sovereign state that dispenses justice,” he said. “We have no reason to oppose having these individuals judged there.”

He also pledged that France would try to get the sentences commuted to life.

The final two cases of 12 were heard Monday in the Iraqi capital in an open courtroom and in the presence of French consular officials.

The French defendants were captured in Syria and transferred to Iraq by the American backed Kurdish forces that have been fighting the Islamic State in Syria.

The defendants were accused of violating an Iraqi terrorism law by joining a terrorist organization, the Islamic State. Any specific crimes they might have committed, and whether they ever set foot in Iraq, were not factors in determining their culpability under that law.

Judge Ahmed Ali Mohammed, who heard all 12 cases, said that the French who joined the Islamic State played a special role by legitimizing the organization in the eyes of the world, and that what it did in Syria reverberated in Iraq.

“Daesh wanted to be an international organization and thousands of Syrians and Iraqis joined it,” Mr. Mohammed said, using the Arabic term for the Islamic State. “That had an impact on Iraq.”

“The foreigners — the Belgians, the French — they came and created legitimacy for this organization,” he said.

The defendants who appeared in the tidy Iraqi courtroom over the past week included committed jihadis as well as more hapless Islamic State adherents who figured out how to get to Syria but not how to leave, which was considerably harder since the Islamic State generally confiscated recruits’ passports and other papers.

Among the defendants were two converts to Islam, both with long jihadi histories: Kévin Gonot and Léonard Lopez.

Mr. Lopez had been one of the founders of Sanabil, an organization that supported Muslim detainees in France and was eventually shut down by prosecutors. He also helped run an extremist website, and went to Syria and Iraq with his family.

Mr. Gonot, who came from a rural area of southwest France, persuaded his entire family to convert to Islam and go with him to Syria. He married Jennifer Clain, the niece of two well known French jihadis, Fabien and Jean-Michel Clain, who were both killed in Syria in the last six months.

The Clain brothers were the first to announce that the Islamic State was responsible for the attacks in and around Paris in November 2015.

Also in the French group were Fodil Aouidate and Vianney Ouraghi, both known to French intelligence, according to the Center for the Analysis of Terrorism in Paris. Mr. Aouidate was a persuasive recruiter and got 22 of his relatives to join him in Syria. It is unclear what else he did in Syria and Iraq.

Mr. Ouraghi, who was a university student from Lille but joined the Nusra Front in 2013, before switching to the Islamic State, was an active fighter. He was wounded twice, he said.

Mr. Mohammed, the judge, said that according to Iraqi intelligence, he had worked in a welcome center for foreign fighters in Mosul.

Mr. Mohammed appeared to disapprove of Mr. Ouraghi’s statement that he had taken a second wife after being injured in an Islamic State battle. Their interchange was one of the few moments of humor in the trial.

“You said you got injured twice and were on medication, and had to to use crutches to walk from 2014 to 2016,” Mr. Mohammed asked. “So how come you got married to two wives?”

“What does my using crutches or being injured have to do with my getting married,” said Mr. Ouraghi, who had earlier said he had been shot in the pelvis.

“But you were suffering from a pelvic injury, so why did you get married twice?” pressed Mr. Mohammed.

“I got married because I could,” Mr. Vianney said.

In contrast, Mohammed Merzoughi, who was a 10-year veteran of the French army, and Mohammed Berriri, 24, the youngest of the group, who came “to defend the weak, women and children,” whom he saw being bombed and neglected on videos, seemed to have wanted to believe that a new life in Syria would make them happy and give them the jobs and sense of identity they lacked at home in France.

Mr. Berriri went by himself to Syria. The Islamic State assigned him to work as a guard and then in a medical office, but eventually he refused, saying he wanted to leave. He ended up in an Islamic State prison.

“When I came I was radical and angry at people, but I thought the wars were for the good of the people, to defend the people,” he told the court. “Now I regret that I joined.”

“I never killed anyone, I did not beat anyone,” he said. “And the criminal offenses that the organization committed, I am not responsible for.”

Mr. Mohammed was unmoved. Mr. Berriri also received the death sentence.

All 12 verdicts will be appealed, and some already have been, Mr. Mohammed said. The appellate court can change the verdict or overturn the conviction entirely.

The accused also has the right to request a pardon or commutation of sentence from the Iraqi government even if the appellate court has confirmed the sentence.

The final step is a signoff by the Iraqi president. The French government can intervene on behalf of its citizens at the appellate level or in discussions with the government.

Source: NYT > World

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