Paris, France – Activists and lawyers have pleaded with the French government to recognise flaws in Iraq‘s justice system after two more of its citizens accused of ISIL membership were given the death penalty, bringing the total to six.
The executions could be carried out at the end of the week.
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“We have information from Iraqi lawyers who do not want to take on these cases on because it’s too dangerous for them,” Raphael Chenuil-Hazan, Executive Director of the French NGO Together Against the Death Penalty (ECPM) told Al Jazeera.
Human rights groups accuse the Iraqi government of conducting thousands of unfair trials against those suspected to be members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS).
A report from Human Rights Watch said the trials are based on limited criminal evidence, often relying solely on a defendant’s forced confession.
Defence lawyers have reported threats to them and their families for providing legal aid to ISIL suspects.
Iraq’s justice system aside, Chenuil-Hazan said the French government has a responsibility to protect its citizens from the death penalty, which has been outlawed in France since 1981.
“Whatever they have done and whatever they have been accused of, France has a responsibility to support its citizens … especially when they face the death penalty in another part of the world,” said Chenuil-Hazan.
Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian told French radio on Tuesday that he had been in contact with Iraqi President Barham Salih, and that the government was “multiplying efforts to avoid the death penalty.”
“We are absolutely against the death penalty,” Le Drian told French radio station France Inter. But, he added, “These terrorists … need to be tried where they committed their crimes. It’s the Iraqi justice system that will decide on them.”
Violating international human rights
Lawyers said international human rights were at stake, stating that if the deaths are carried out, France and Iraq would be responsible for violating citizens’ “right to life” as outlined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“France has the means to bring back our citizens and they know how to do it,” Vincent Brengarth, a lawyer with the Paris-based law firm Bourdon & Associates told Al Jazeera. “But the fact is the state has exposed these people to the risk of the death penalty even though this sanction has been abolished and clearly contradicts international law.”
Last year, Brengarth and his colleague William Bourdon travelled to Baghdad to represent Melina Boughedir, a 27-year-old French national suspected of ISIL involvement.
Boughedir was eventually found guilty of “terrorism” and sentenced to 20 years in prison. She is currently being held in an Iraqi cell with her two-year-old daughter.
While in Baghdad, Brengarth says he saw multiple flaws in the Iraqi justice system.
“We saw that the right to defence wasn’t really being taken into account,” said Brengarth who recounted witnessing people being sentenced to the death penalty after less than an hour of trial. “France has a responsibility … it’s abnormal that we cannot guarantee our citizens’ these minimal rights.”
The six French citizens sentenced to death are among more than a dozen captured by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in January and handed over to Iraq.
SDF forces have transferred hundreds of Iraqi and foreign detainees to Iraq in recent months, where trials are ongoing.
Iraq has taken a hardline position against those suspected of ISIL involvement after the group spent three years in control of a third of the country.
As ISIL continues to lose territory, the Iraqi government has rushed to punish anyone suspected of ISIL involvement, with thousands awaiting trial.
Earlier this month, Sweden proposed setting up an international tribunal to prosecute those suspected of joining ISIL.
If implemented, the tribunal would model similar systems set up after the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and wars in the former Yugoslavia. The talks, however, have yet to lead to any concrete measures.
A ‘complicated’ issue for French citizens
The question of what to do with suspected French ISIL fighters is a sensitive subject in France.
A wave of recent attacks are still on people’s minds, particularly the November 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people and were claimed by ISIL.
“They said they wanted to die for their cause,” Karine Dubus, a 44-year-old restaurant manager told Al Jazeera. “It was their choice to go to Syria, so now they have to accept their choice … but I get that it’s complicated.”
Michelle Meilleur, a 65-year-old retiree living in northeast Paris, shared a similar sentiment.
“They left knowing what they were doing,” Meilleur told Al Jazeera. “I think it would make sense for them to be tried over there…and I think my opinion reflects the majority of the French population.”
According to French government figures, up to 1,700 French nationals travelled to Syria and Iraq between 2014 and 2018 to join ISIL.
One French national awaiting sentencing in Iraq, 32-year-old Fodil Tahar Aouidate, was seen in a video posted by ISIL shortly after the November 2015 attacks. In the video, he said it was his “great pleasure and joy to see these unbelievers suffer as we suffer here”.
Many French citizens say they are concerned that if the suspects are brought back to France, there won’t be enough evidence or witnesses available to bring them to trial.
Still, some insist they should be repatriated and tried in their home country.
“They’re French and they need to be tried by the French justice system,” Kenza Dumay, a 22-year-old student. “Maybe they did terrible things, but they at least deserve the right to be tried by a fair justice system … one that won’t send them straight to their death.”