Just outside recently liberated Mosul, two judges have been tasked with punishing Islamic State followers who committed crimes and helping victims find justice. But without any way to gather evidence, the process often verges on farce -- and could lead to a new cycle of violence.
On an early morning in late March, a large truck drives through the streets of Qaraqosh carrying about 50 men with blindfolds, their hands tied and their heads pressed to their knees. "Murderers! Rapists!" a man on the street shouts as they pass by. The truck stops in front of the court of inquiry, a white villa with rust-colored iron gates and a garden. It's an inconspicuous location for a major project: This is where alleged supporters of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) in the Mosul region will be brought to justice.
Masked Iraqi army special forces open the tailgate. The men, their heads shaved, climb down from the truck, some of them groaning. Their clothing is torn. Black soil sticks to the soles of their feet. The prisoners hobble into the inner courtyard of the court building and kneel on the ground with their faces to the wall. A guard beats them with a metal stick, shouting "be quiet."
The victims of IS are gathered next to the prisoners, gaunt men and veiled women from Mosul who lost family members, their homes and all of their possessions during the last two-and-a-half years of occupation by the terrorist regime. They hold their documents, evidence of the atrocities they experienced, tightly in their hands.
Supporters and victims of IS have never faced each other in this way. The Mosul residents gaze wordlessly at the bound men on the ground.
Although fighting is still ongoing in the western part of Mosul, and a half-million people are still trapped inside the old city, with insufficient food and water, an attempt to process IS atrocities is underway here, in the Court of United Nineveh. The court is addressing some of the most gruesome crimes in recent history: mass murder, rape and devastating attacks that have not only torn apart Iraq, but have also kept the entire world in suspense.
Two judges are heading the investigations. One is tasked with investigating IS crimes while the other is supposed to help compensate those citizens whose lives IS fighters destroyed. Sadoon Yami directs the hearings and will submit his files to a criminal court, which will hand down a sentence later on. His colleague, Yonis al-Jomaeli, sends the victims' reports to the relevant ministry in Baghdad, which decides on compensation. The two judges work in adjacent courtrooms, so that victims and perpetrators are telling their stories less than two meters away from each other.
The Court of United Nineveh is a kind of miniature version of Iraq as it awakens from its recent nightmare. The work of the judges will help determine whether the inhabitants of Mosul can return to normal. But can there be justice as long as IS has not been defeated militarily? Or is this more about retribution? And is the Iraqi judiciary capable of dealing with the crimes of the terrorists in a way that makes reconciliation possible?
'You're Not Lying?'
On the second floor of the improvised court, Sadoon Yami sits behind his desk and fills up ink pads. The ink is for the prisoners' thumbprints under their statements. "We need ink, paper, time and money," says Yami by way of a greeting, pointing to the stack of binders behind him. "But we only have ink and paper."
Yami, a stout, jovial man dressed in a gray suit and striped tie, interviews 20 to 30 presumed IS supporters each workday. He allots 10 minutes to each case, with two clerks sitting next to him. The statements the prisoners made shortly after being arrested are on the table in front of Yami.
A helper rips open the door and pushes the first prisoner into the room. A man, about 40 years old, exhausted and barefoot, falls on his knees three times in a row in front of Yami's desk. "Get up!" Yami shouts. "Get up! What did these idiots teach you? What is your name, where were you arrested, why are you here?"
"My name is Yasser S., I am a laborer, and I voluntarily surrendered to the army in Mosul," says the man. "I was with IS for four months, I earned $130 (€119) a month, and I just guarded a power station. They gave me a Kalashnikov. I completed two months of military training and attended religious classes for 10 days."
"Why did you surrender?"
"I was injured in an air strike and had to go to the hospital. Then I hid from IS, even though they were looking for me. I was tired. I did not participate in any battle."
"Is that the truth? You're not lying?" Yami asks sternly.
"No," says the prisoner, looking at the floor. "No one forced me to say that. I am sorry for what I did."
His speech sounds rehearsed. There are no further questions. Yasser S. places his thumbprint under the statement. The judge sighs and files away the report. The prisoner is dragged out of the room.
A well-dressed, bored-looking lawyer for the IS fighters, who had been sitting on the sofa to guarantee the rule of law, also leaves the room. He never spoke to any of the defendants.
The Court of United Nineveh is not the only court of inquiry in Iraq to investigate IS supporters, but the judges say they are the only ones who are investigating cases from Mosul. Thousands of IS members are in custody all over the country, and about a thousand have been arrested in the region since Mosul was recaptured. The authorities suspect that just as many managed to escape from the city unidentified.
The Iraqi security forces have built up a close-knit network to identify IS supporters. They work with informants in Mosul, and when a region has been liberated, they set up checkpoints along the escape routes, where they use national databases to scrutinize and interrogate those who are trying to flee. The ones that are arrested eventually end up in front of Yami's desk.
But mistakes happen again and again, and innocent people are taken into custody. "Sometimes the names of the suspects are identical and we end up with the wrong ones," says Yami. And there are also cases in which the wrong people are accused, by accident or deliberately. Actually, every prisoner is required to see a judge within 48 hours, but this rule is rarely observed, and the accused sometimes disappear into prison cells for months.
Yami would rather be doing something else, but the government forced him to work here, and now he spends his days in this narrow cubbyhole. Some of his helpers wear face masks. Many prisoners have not washed themselves in quite some time, and the stench is overpowering.
Dangerous, Often Ineffective Work
Yami, who previously worked in the Mosul Civil Court, clearly remembers the day in June 2014 when IS captured the city and turned the court, where he used to issue birth certificates, into a Sharia court. Yami and his family got into the car and fled to Erbil in the Kurdish region. He was unemployed for a time before being transferred to Baghdad, where he also worked with official documents.
Yami's life has become dangerous since he was sent to Qaraqosh. He receives threatening text messages daily: "We will kill you." Or: "We will kidnap your children."
Qaraqosh, a Christian city, was completely destroyed by IS, and the population fled. It is an advantageous location for the court becaue it is located only 35 kilometers (22 miles) southeast of Mosul, far enough away from IS shells, but still readily accessible. Yami now carries a gun under his jacket. When asked why he was selected for this post, he replies: "I don't know."
The judge, whose job is to discover the truth, seems unconvinced of his mission. Perhaps it is too big, too burdensome. And perhaps he would prefer to simply continue where he left off in 2014, as an official issuing certificates.
Then the door opens again, and soldiers bring in the next prisoner. He is about 30 years old and his hair is freshly cut. Yami asks him the same questions: Did he swear allegiance to IS, did he use a weapon and did he commit crimes?
The man has a dull expression on his face. His jaw is trembling.
"Your name is Ahmed M.?"
"Mhm," the prisoner replies.
"Don't say mhm, say yes!" Yami shouts. "Show some respect!"
Ahmed M. states that he was a member of the Iraqi military when IS attacked Mosul. "I joined IS, completed two weeks of military training and fought on the front line against the Kurds. I carried a Kalashnikov with five magazines. I emptied only one in combat. When IS gave me 10 days off, I went home and my father prevented me from going back. I was only with IS for 27 days." And yes, he said, he had sworn this oath: "I would like to join the IS and follow Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in good and bad times. I will do whatever he asks of me."
The judge breathes deeply. At least the prisoner mentioned his weapon. "Tell the truth!" He shouts again. "The truth! Did you really stay home?" The man trembles, but he sticks to his story. In the end, he places his thumb print at the bottom of his statement. Yami goes through the motions. This time the lawyer remained outside.
None of the 20 alleged IS supporters Yami interrogates on this day confesses to a crime. They all claim that they only watched, that they fled, performed harmless tasks, were hangers-on and were victims of circumstances. Few admit to possessing a weapon. Some say their fallen brothers or fathers were with IS, but that they themselves were not. And why should these men confess their guilt if there is no evidence? Or could it be that they are innocent?
Yami says he has managed to convict a few murderers, "but things are not going well at the moment." If you sit in his interrogation room for a few days, you begin to wonder how justice is to be achieved here at all. His investigative work is based on confessions, which makes the system vulnerable to torture. Witness statements, evidence, all the things needed for rigorous criminal prosecution, do not exist.
Even though almost no perpetrator can be convicted in this manner, Ahmed M. does provide the names of dozens of IS fighters. One allegedly laid mines, another killed a woman, and a third handed a prisoner over to IS when eastern Mosul was captured. One allegedly spied for IS, while another man stole cars.
A New Cycle of Violence?The judge writes down all the names. There is little else he can do. His work is reminiscent of the truth commissioners in El Salvador, Guatemala and Liberia who documented war crimes even though it only occasionally led to consequences for the perpetrators. The idea was to create an official version of events in order to reconcile society, so that perpetrators and victims could live together again. Judge Yami, however, still feels he is a long way from this goal.
"Ninety percent of all prisoners here are lying," he says. "If I could question them alone, they might tell me the truth. But now they spend a few days with the other prisoners, and then they know what to say in their testimony."
Although defendants remain in custody until a criminal judge reaches a verdict based on Yami's reports, the judgments are often contestable because people claim the confessions were made under torture or because they are based on flimsy evidence. As a result, the criminal judges acquit many guilty individuals to avoid the risk of locking away the innocent.
The Iraqi government issued an anti-terrorism law in 2005 following the overthrow of former dictator Saddam Hussein. Under Article 4 of the law, which now also serves as the basis for verdicts against IS supporters, acts of terror are punishable with life in prison or death. The problem with this law is that these penalties apply not only to the perpetrators, but also to helpers and accessories.
In order to prevent abuse, an amnesty law was enacted in 2016. Since then, anyone who can prove that he joined IS or another terrorist group against his will and did not commit any serious crimes is set free. Some 800 prisoners have benefited from the amnesty rule since the middle of last year.
"Almost all the prisoners I interrogate will soon be free again," says Judge Yami.
There is as still no clear strategy for how to account for IS's atrocities, and there have been few efforts to lead Iraqi society toward reconciliation, as was done in Rwanda under orders from the government. Although Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has spoken of establishing a special tribunal for IS criminals, it has failed to materialize thus far. The government is busy with the fight for Mosul, and the country's economy is in shambles. In this context, justice feels like a luxury.
Sometimes there are three prisoners in Yami's office at the same time. Then he instructs the clerks: "Each of you will interrogate one of them." Sometimes he reads to the prisoners what the security forces wrote down in their first interrogation, and they simply nod. "I gather evidence," says Judge Yami. But he soon becomes impatient. Besides, he doesn't really want to be observed by journalists during the interrogations.
Iraq needs help in coming to terms with the IS atrocities, and the judiciary appears to be hopelessly overwhelmed. Mass rape, crimes against humanity and genocide would actually be a case for the International Criminal Court in The Hague, but it cannot take them on because Iraq has not submitted itself to its jurisdiction. Even a war crimes tribunal, like those formed during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, could only be established by a decision of the United Nations Security Council -- and this would presumably be vetoed by Russia, China and the United States.
Thus, the kind of genuine accounting for the past that would be so important for the victims and the country will not occur. Instead, Iraq faces the prospect of vigilante justice and a new cycle of violence.
Next to Judge Yami's interrogation room, hundreds of people are pushing their way up the stairs to the second office where the other judge, Yonis al-Jomaeli, sits. They move aside when the IS prisoners stumble down, but then their faces harden. "We will never forgive them," whispers a woman whose son was kidnapped by IS. "They destroyed our lives. How else should we feel?"
Yonis al-Jomaeli's office looks like the interrogation room. He too sits behind a wooden desk, a wiry man with narrow glasses. "Welcome to hell," he says, by way of greeting. Jomaeli is the administrator of horrors: The stack of files on his desk is 50 centimeters (20 inches) high. Some 200 to 300 families come to the court every day, he says.
He has collected statement after statement, including hundreds of photos of devastated living rooms filled with dead bodies. Without being asked, he begins reading from the files, jumping between cases, anecdotes and individual fates. At some point Jomaeli can no longer tell what distinguishes one family from another.
Jomaeli isn't working in this court voluntarily either. He too was a judge in Mosul and fled to Erbil when IS fighters arrived. One of the cases he is addressing today is that of a judge who was a friend of his and was murdered by IS. "Many IS victims were government employees, policemen and innocent civilians."
It's loud outside the room, where the crowd is jostling at Jomaeli's door. When someone leaves the office, several plaintiffs push their way in at the same time: a man who was the only member of his family to survive a bombardment; another who buried his murdered wife in the clay floor of his hovel because he did not dare carry her to the cemetery in view of IS fighters. There is a woman whose husband was killed by a sniper. They all hope for financial compensation, at the very least.
Jomaeli writes silently. He is in a hurry.
Noh Hazem Noh, 28, a shy man with jet-black hair, and his two-year-old daughter are part of today's group. He recounts how his wife Rihan, "the most beautiful woman in Mosul," was shot when they returned home from a refugee camp to the liberated eastern part of the city. His wife was pregnant, he says, and they were running through the streets "when an IS sniper took aim at us." As they were running, a bullet hit Rihan behind the ear. He held her, says Noh, adding that his T-shirt is still covered with her blood. He says that he can prove everything.
She was wounded and he brought her to the hospital, but in vain. Noh has come to the court with his mother and two witnesses. After their statement has been entered into the record, the family signs the document with Judge Jomaeli. "We demand our rights," they write beneath their signatures.
The Iraqi government has promised to pay a sort of survivor's pension to the victims of IS. But Jomaeli is pessimistic. "I have no idea when these payments will arrive, or whether they will arrive at all. I also don't know how much compensation there will be. Iraq has no money, and there are many, many demands." He hopes that NGOs will help the plaintiffs until the government can. "We have the capacity of normal people," he says. "We are tired." Jomaeli plans to take an unannounced vacation day the next day.
A woman who has not managed to see Judge Jomaeli is still waiting outside his office in the afternoon. She is here for the third time. "IS accused my son of being a spy, and they kidnapped him right before my eyes," she says. "My husband sold cigarettes secretly. They beat him half to death, and he is now disabled. I want these people to be locked up. My pain is unbearable."
The last prisoner of the day is standing in Judge Yami's office next door. His arms are covered in boils. He too claims that he never committed a crime, admitting only to attending a military camp, but said that he never engaged in battle. He says that his brother was active in IS, but that he has since disappeared. As the suspect tells the same story the judge has heard so often, his legs quiver. On several occasions, he has to gather himself before continuing to speak. At the end of his testimony, he begs: "Tell the guards to stop beating me!"
After spending a few days in this court, one gets the impression that some of the prisoners are being tortured to secure confessions.
An employee of the Iraqi intelligence service says: "The only thing we fear are NGOs, which make a fuss when we beat IS people."
A colleague of Judges Yami and Jomaeli says with a wink: "We have special interrogation methods. We make sure that the prisoners tell us the truth."
Judge Yami is unwilling to comment on the statement. He packs his bag in silence and finally says: "Islamic State is our enemy on the battlefield, but not in court."
As they do every day, the judges leave the court at 2 p.m., after five hours and dozens of hearings. They are in a bad mood, and they seem as if they want to leave this place behind as quickly as possible -- to escape the stories and the expectations of victims longing for justice.
As the two judges leave the building and the victims' families depart for Mosul, the black truck returns to the court.
The gate opens slowly and the prisoners walk out. They form a chain to the truck that will return them to prison, with each man's hands resting on the shoulders of the one in front of him. They are required to touch each other so that no one can escape. One prisoner after another places his bare feet on the ground. For a moment, it looks as if the chain will never end.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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