US forces have quietly sent at least 30 suspected foreign Daesh fighters captured in Syria last year and in late 2017 to stand trial in Iraq, interviews with the men, Iraqi sources and court documents show.
Reuters reported that three of the men have been convicted of Daesh membership and sentenced to death by Iraqi courts, while five have been given life sentences. Four of them told Reuters they were tortured in prison, a claim the news wire was unable to verify.
Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) denied that detainees were transferred to their custody from Syria in 2017 and 2018, and denied the detainees’ claims of torture.
While the fate of thousands of Daesh fighters captured in Syria remains unresolved, the roughly 30 suspected foreign fighters were transferred to Iraq in 2017 and 2018 after they were captured by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), according to Iraqi court files, US detention records, intelligence and judicial sources as well as people familiar with the matter.
The US military’s Central Command, which oversees US forces in the Middle East, declined to comment on Reuters’ findings, but acknowledged the challenges posed by detainees captured by Kurdish militias, whose authority is not internationally recognised
“The issue of foreign terrorist fighters in SDF custody in Syria is an extremely complex problem,” spokesman Captain Bill Urban said.
The United States wants countries to take responsibility for their foreign fighters through “prosecution, rehabilitation programmes, or other measures that sufficiently prevent detainees from re-engaging in terrorism,” he said.
“We remain engaged with a wide range of international partners to ensure that these foreign terrorist fighters never threaten anyone again.”
US President Donald Trump is pressing European nations to take back their nationals from among more than 2,000 suspected foreign fighters captured during the final battles to destroy the group’s self-declared caliphate in Syria earlier this year.
The US and European allies have held talks with Baghdad on a possible bulk transfer of prisoners from Syria to be prosecuted in Iraq since the start of the year, Western diplomats, Iraqi and American officials say.
While there is no common European policy on how to handle detained foreign fighters from Europe, Iraq has shown it is willing to prosecute.
Prisoner transfers are not prohibited under international law if they come with human rights guarantees, but that applies to transfers between states – not a non-state actor such as the SDF.
“The sub-contraction of trials … to an ill-resourced, under-funded, ill-equipped criminal justice system in Iraq can only be described as an abrogation of responsibility,” said Fionnuala Ni Aolain, UN special rapporteur for human rights while countering terrorism.
Iraqi judicial officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Iraqi militants sentenced to death have quadrupled from 65 in 2017 to at least 271 in 2018, an Amnesty report revealed in April.
The country is still considered one of the top five “executioner nations” in the world by Amnesty International.
Though many locals have been executed, Iraqi courts are yet to carry out the death sentence for a foreign member of Daesh.