Accused Syrian IS Fighters Starting to Face Justice
By Jeff Seldin August 6, 2019
Parts of Syria freed from the clutches of Islamic State are starting to hold some members of the terror group accountable for their crimes.
While most of the world's attention has been focused on the approximately 2,000 foreign IS fighters currently in the custody of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), another 8,000 suspected IS fighters from Syria and Iraq are also behind bars.
U.S. officials estimate about half of those 8,000 prisoners are from Syria. And now, it seems, at least some of them are being brought to justice.
"The SDF continues to work with local community leaders and local judicial processes to help address issues of ISIS accountability," a State Department official told VOA, using another acronym for the terror organization.
That accountability includes "sentencing fighters who are proven to have committed crimes," the official added.
There are few details about how justice is being carried out and what safeguards, if any, have been put in place to ensure accused fighters get a fair hearing.
Nor have any officials been willing to say how many cases have been settled by Syrian communities in areas liberated by the SDF, a non-state actor made up of mostly Kurdish fighters.
Officials with the SDF and the group's political wing have declined to respond to requests for comment.
Until now, they have alternatively begged for help with the prisoners and threatened to release them if help does not come, pointing out that all 10,000 of the alleged IS fighters are being kept in a series of makeshift prisons that cannot hold them for the long term.
U.S. officials have also shared little about the fate of Syria's IS fighters.
"We have efforts in place," Ambassador James Jeffrey, U.S. special representative for Syria, told reporters at the State Department last week.
"They're going slowly – to move – but they're going to move the Iraqis back to Iraq, and the Syrians to be placed on trial," he added.
Human rights and aid groups contacted by VOA said while they have heard talk about the possibility of trials for alleged Syrian IS fighters, they had yet to see any firm indication any sort of judicial proceedings are getting under way.
Trying IS fighters in Iraq
Unlike neighboring Iraq, which has put hundreds of Iraqis and foreigners on trial for crimes allegedly committed in the name of IS, in SDF-controlled Syria, there is no national, sovereign government.
And even in Iraq, there have been abundant concerns about the conditions in which alleged IS fighters are being held and tried.
A new report by the Defense Department's inspector general, released Tuesday, cited "significant due process concerns" for alleged IS fighters, supporters and sympathizers in Iraqi custody.
The IG report also said such concerns were echoed by the U.S. State Department, and that the problems resulted in trials "characterized by some U.N. agencies and NGOs as arbitrary and unfair."
Groups such as Human Rights Watch have been equally alarmed.
"Trials of ISIS suspects in Baghdad, which have lasted as short as 5 minutes, have consisted of a judge interviewing the suspect, usually relying on a confession, often coerced, with no effective legal representation," HRW Senior Iraq Researcher Belkis Wille wrote this past March.
"Authorities have also made no efforts to solicit victim participation in the trials, even as witnesses," Wille added.
HRW has also raised concerns about the conditions for the families of suspected IS fighters in SDF custody.
In a report released last month, HRW wrote the more than 11,000 women and children in camps like al Hol in the Kurdish Autonomous area in northeast Syria were being held "in appalling and sometimes deadly conditions."
Foreign fighters' fate
As for IS foreign fighters and their families, the U.S. has been urging their countries of origin to take them back and prosecute them.
"These fighters are dangerous, battle-hardened terrorists," Ambassador Nathan Sales, State Department counterterrorism coordinator, said last Thursday. "No one should expect the United States to solve this problem for them, or the SDF, or anyone else."
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