Twelve Dutch women and their children were repatriated to the Netherlands last November from the camps in northeast Syria for foreigners accused of being associated with the armed group ISIL (ISIS).
They were taken into custody on terrorism charges.
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Hasna Aarab, a Dutch woman hailing from the town of Hengelo in the east of the Netherlands, was among those repatriated. She was primarily held for travelling to Syria with her four-year-old son in 2015 to marry a Moroccan ISIL fighter, according to Dutch prosecutors.
They also plan to prosecute her for enslaving a Yazidi woman, which is considered a crime against humanity.
A district court in The Hague began hearing Aarab’s case in February. Since then, Dutch prosecutors have been investigating the matter, which is still in the pre-trial phase.
“So far in this case, Hasna A, hasn’t come to court, but she has been represented by her lawyers, who said that she had a Yazidi woman living in the house, but did not work for her. So, they said Hasna A has not enslaved a Yazidi,” Brechtje van de Moosdijk, spokesperson of the Dutch Public Prosecution Service, told Al Jazeera.
Moosdijk said Aarab along with the other women have been held in a women’s prison in the east of the country.
With this case, the Netherlands has become the second European country after Germany to prosecute crimes against Yazidis.
Centuries of persecution
For centuries, the Yazidis have been persecuted for their religious beliefs by the Ottomans, Arabs and most recently, ISIL.
“We are a mainly Kurdish-speaking religious minority and have been victims of war crimes because, to a large extent, our faith is misunderstood,” Wahhab Hassoo, co-director of NL Helpt Yezidis, a Dutch organisation fighting for the rights of the community, told Al Jazeera.
“Our religion is an ancient Mesopotamian one, connected to nature. We pray to Tawusî Melek, who is symbolised as a peacock. So, because we pray to a ‘peacock angel’, we’ve been called the ‘devil worshippers’,” he added.
Most Yazidis have mainly inhabited the mountainous regions of northwest Iraq since they consider the mountain valleys of Lalish and Sinjar sacred. Others also lived in parts of Turkey, Armenia and Syria.
But when ISIL took control of major Iraqi cities in 2014, thousands were killed and enslaved, making many from the community live in camps meant for internally displaced people (IDP) in Syria and Iraq. Some also fled to other parts of the world to seek refuge.
Karim Asad Ahmad Khan, special adviser and head of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD), said in May 2021: “I can confirm to the [UN Security] Council that based on our independent criminal investigations, UNITAD has established clear and convincing evidence that genocide was committed by ISIL against the Yazidi as a religious group.”
In July 2021, the Netherlands also recognised crimes against Yazidis as genocide and began the process of taking concrete steps to prosecute crimes against people from the community.
Last month, together with Belgium, the Netherlands joined an international investigation into atrocities committed against Yazidis in Syria and Iraq, according to the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation (Eurojust).
Too late to prosecute?
According to the European Commission for home affairs, it is estimated that between 2011 and 2016, more than 5,000 people from EU nations like Belgium, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Finland and Denmark travelled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIL.
While half of them have returned after the group’s weakening in 2019, European legal systems have struggled to manage the judicial aspects of the ISIL files and have been “dragging their feet” in prosecuting ISIL crimes committed by European citizens, according to Mubin Shaikh, a counterterrorism expert.
“Europe has not been firm on the laws that already exist in the book and have not been giving sentences their citizens who joined ISIL, deserve. They are treating the ISIL brides as victims rather than perpetrators and giving them shorter sentences. Give them 20 years like the US does with ISIL brides,” he said.
“I think, the bigger story is why are European nations sending a message to ISIL along the lines of ‘hey, sorry, we can’t even prosecute your people?’” Shaikh said.
Members from the Yazidi community share a similar sentiment.
“It has been nine years since ISIL murdered and raped their way through Sinjar, using enslavement and sexual violence as a pre-meditated weapon with which to annihilate the Yazidi people,” Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman, Nobel Peace prize winner and president of Nadia’s Initiative, told Al Jazeera.
“Whilst I am pleased to see countries like the Netherlands and Germany take responsibility for their ISIS fighters, this should have happened a lot earlier. Because the world dragged its feet, women and girls continue to be subjected to horrendous sexual violence in conflict zones. One or two prosecutions is not any kind of deterrent,” said Murad, who had been kidnapped by ISIL fighters in 2014 and then sold as a sex slave.
Meanwhile, Hassoo also said that in Europe, there is a general lack of understanding about who the Yazidis are, in turn resulting in the slow reaction towards prosecuting crimes against the community.
“I have begun giving lectures and lessons to primary schools and also in universities, to companies, even to government institutions and ministries about the Yazidi genocide together with someone who survived the Holocaust. We believe that education as a Yazidi, as a person, but also as an organisation, is an effective way to make people aware about what has happened to us and build the case to bring justice,” he said.
So far, a German court has jailed a woman for more than nine years, for committing crimes against Yazidis.
According to Moosdijk, Germany has more universal jurisprudence than the Netherlands to prosecute further.
“So in the Netherlands, the perpetrator has to be Dutch or be present on Dutch soil, to be prosecuted. But there is contact between many European countries, they regularly come together and talk about dealing with such cases and experiences are exchanged. But each country has its own legal system,” she said.
Asked whether Aarab’s nationality could be stripped if she is found guilty, Moosdijk said it was not up to the prosecutor to decide. It can only take place if the defendant has dual nationality, she said.
The next pre-trial hearing on Aarab’s case will take place on September 22 and the prosecution has said there are enough serious indications on the slavery charges to keep the suspect in custody.
“I think, this is just the beginning of our path to justice, but I’m happy the hearings have begun. It means a lot to our community,” Hassoo said.
Murad said this case is also important for every Yazidi who has survived abuse.
“I hear from survivors time and again that they want to see their abusers brought to justice. It is a vital part of the healing process – knowing that not only are these people removed from society where they could do further harm, but also that their ordeal has been acknowledged by the legal system,” she said.
“I am personally incredibly grateful to those lawyers and their teams who are actively pursuing perpetrators of conflict-related sexual violence. However, we need more countries to follow Germany and the Netherlands and start taking responsibility for those of their citizens who carried out genocide and sexual violence,” Murad said.
“We would also like more support for survivors. They are traumatised, many of them have lost entire families as well as their homes, their homeland and any notion of economic security. They cannot be left to languish in refugee and IDP camps forever,” she added.