Foreign Policy, by Pesha Magid: Standing in his prisoner’s yellow jumpsuit, Mustapha Merzoughi remained quiet at first. He shook slightly and brushed at his eyes, before assuming a neutral expression. His Arabic appeared to be limited, and when the judge first began to question him, he stayed silent, eventually saying in French: “There is no point that I speak. Whatever I say, you will convict me to death.” About an hour later, he was.
Merzoughi was one of 11 French defendants that an Iraqi court sentenced to hang over the course of trials from May 26 to June 3. He was captured, however, not in Iraq but in neighboring Syria, by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) during the last battles against the Islamic State. Merzoughi and his fellow ISIS defendants were the first official cases of foreigners transferred from Syria to Iraq for trial—juridical guinea pigs in an experimental solution to the problem facing many European countries whose citizens left home to fight for the Islamic State. The Europeans do not want them to return, but the SDF does not have the sovereign power to sentence them, leaving their citizens in limbo.
Transferring them to Iraq allows Europe to sidestep the issue, but it comes with a price—or, to be more precise, a fee. Sources from both the Iraqi and U.S. sides have alleged that Iraq wants to be paid for the trouble of trying foreigners.
Between 800 and 1,500 foreigners from countries including France, the United Kingdom, and Germany still remain in Syria detained by the SDF. France alone has about 450 citizens being held in Syria. Jean-Charles Brisard, the head of the Center for the Analysis of Terrorism (CAT) in France, believes that as long as public opinion holds steady in resisting their return, this is only the beginning of a new kind of injustice.
“I believe this is the first wave of trials and we can anticipate other waves in the future,” he told Foreign Policy. “From what we know, the trials were very expedited and had very little time for defense. It is the opposite of our own values of justice.”
For French President Emmanuel Macron, the Iraqi trials were an uneasy solution to an intractable problem. In late February, Macron faced a French public haunted by the trauma of the 2015 Paris attacks that left 130 people dead and hostile to the potential return of any French Islamic State members. On the other hand, there was mounting pressure from the United States and the SDF to take the foreign detainees out of their territory in northeastern Syria. Macron met with Iraqi President Barham Salih, and after long discussions, they held a joint press conference in which Macron pledged to deepen France’s military and economic support for Iraq. Salih confirmed that a total of 13 French nationals would be transferred to Iraq for trial.
“I think it was at this moment during this presidential visit that this deal was passed between Macron and the Iraqis,” said Myriam Benraad, a research fellow at the Institute of Research and Study on the Arab and Muslim Worlds in France. “The Iraqis said very clearly to the French, ‘We are ready to keep them, but that’s going to mean money, and that’s going to mean assistance, in particular arms and military assistance.’”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has portrayed the prosecutions as just, stating recently that the defendants had received “fair trials.” His statements have been condemned by lawyers and human rights organizations, but public opinion appears to be with the government. A recent poll in France showed that 89 percent of respondents believed the government was right to let Iraq judge the French nationals.
“Le Drian knows that this is purely a political move because he knows that the French population does not want them back. There’s a certain revenge mode for a lot of French people. They are getting what they deserve after everything we suffered,” Benraad said.
France claims that the transfer was an agreement between the Kurdish SDF forces and the Iraqis and that it was not involved in the decision. France has officially stated that it respects Iraq’s sovereignty in this matter, but Iraq did not claim jurisdiction over these cases until recently.
The Iraqi justice system is infamous for its abuses: Trials lasting 10 minutes, torture, and forced confessions have all been widely reported. If a country pays for its nationals to be prosecuted in Iraq, it could potentially violate international law and make France complicit in torture. Paris is sensitive to these issues, and Wille said she does not believe France would make any public quid pro quo or direct payment for trials. “It would be increased military assistance or development money or whatever else,” she said.
Regardless of payment, France did not object to the transfer of its citizens to Iraq, a nation known for widely applying the death penalty in terrorism cases.
The courts prosecute defendants in these cases under Iraq’s 2005 anti-terrorism law, which has been heavily criticized for consisting of broad articles that can be loosely interpreted: In the French cases, the judge needed to prove only that they were members of a terrorist organization to sentence them to death. Sentencing requires only confession, a system that incentivizes abuse and torture in order for interrogators to extract the necessary confessions.
Could prosecutors use a similar model of “justice” when God’s people are treated as terrorists for not keeping Sunday sacred?
“While men are sleeping, Satan is actively arranging matters so that the Lord’s people may not have mercy or justice. The Sunday movement is now making its way in darkness. The leaders are concealing the true issue, and many who unite in the movement do not themselves see whither the undercurrent is tending.” Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 5, page 452.