France Won't Take ISIS Fighters Back, But Doesn't Want Them Executed Either
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In Iraq, a court has sentenced four French members of ISIS to death. They're among a dozen French citizens who were captured and handed over to Iraqi authorities to be tried. And they illustrate what happens when a country - in this case, France - decides not to try their citizens at home. NPR's Jane Arraf has been following the trial. She joins us from Irbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq in the north of Iraq. Hi, Jane.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So tell us more about who these ISIS fighters are.
ARRAF: So a lot of these are dual nationals, some from North Africa. The ones that have been sentenced to death Sunday and Monday, they include a postal worker, a truck driver, a military contractor. And they're all appearing in Baghdad's counterterrorism court. So these prisoners come in, and they're dressed in yellow shirts and trousers. There are rows of seats with French consular officials as well as journalists watching. And they're brought in, and they stand in this wooden dock kind of like a cage.
So one of the men was brought in. He's an Algerian French citizen, 33 years old. And he told the judge he was actually tortured in detention. So the judge postponed his case for a medical investigation. Another one came in. He actually started to cry. I mean, very often, they don't react at all, but this man started to cry. And the judge asked him to lift up his shirt to see if he'd been tortured. He appeared not to have been, according to the judge, and they proceeded with it. And he was sentenced to hang.
A lot of these people are saying that they didn't fight for ISIS, but Iraq says it has evidence that they did. And even if they didn't fight, its terrorism laws are so sweeping that even being convicted of being a member of ISIS can land you with the death penalty.
KELLY: And why does France not want to try these? You mentioned some of them are dual nationals, but they're French citizens. Why don't they want to try them in France?
ARRAF: Well, part of it is France was the country where most of the Western Europeans who went to fight for ISIS came from. And France, like other countries, is worried that if they bring them back, they won't have the evidence to convict them there. It's a much higher bar there, particularly since the crimes were committed in this region. Also there's a lot of public opposition to bringing them back.
KELLY: And opposition, I guess, to if they're not able to convict based on evidence in Western Europe, then these people might just be let go and released back onto the streets.
ARRAF: Absolutely. But here's the big problem. They've been sentenced to death. And France, along with almost every other European country, bans the death penalty. At the same time, it did not oppose them being brought to Iraq from Syria where they were captured knowing that they could well be sentenced to the death penalty.
KELLY: So what has been the reaction in France to these sentences?
ARRAF: So France is basically saying that ISIS members need to be held accountable for their crimes where they committed the crimes, in this case partly Iraq. And it said they were making sure that they had the assistance of defense lawyers. And there is an automatic appeal for this. It normally doesn't result in overturning the conviction, but France has said that it is noting to Iraqi authorities that it opposes the death penalty. Now, that's not expected to carry a lot of weight. But there you go.
KELLY: You mentioned that some of these people were transferred over from custody in Syria. What happens to - there's something like 1,200 foreigners still in custody in Syria. What happens to them?
ARRAF: So that is a really big question because these are people from more than 30 different countries. And the Kurdish Syrian forces there can't really handle them. They don't have the capacity. Also it's a region that's not really recognized by anyone. They have all these people because that's where ISIS made its last stand in Syria. That's where they were defeated. The Kurds there are saying they need an international tribunal. They need other countries to step up and put these people on trial, put their own citizens on trial but preferably somewhere here in the region.
KELLY: And transferring more to Iraq, is that another option?
ARRAF: That is a possible option. And Iraq is seemingly willing to put some of these people on trial if, of course, it's compensated for the cost of doing so. But there, again, as we saw today in the trial, there is the risk of torture. There is the fact that these trials aren't considered being run to international human rights standards or Western legal standards. But ISIS and what's left of ISIS and the trials are this huge, lingering problem that everyone is still trying to grapple with.
KELLY: NPR's Jane Arraf in Irbil that's in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, thanks very much.
ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.