Justice for ISIS Child Suspects

What is happening in Iraq
An infographic displays the treatment of children by the authorities. Source: Yahoo Images.

The Human Rights Watch collected evidence in between January and June 2020 that closely reviewed the trial cases of 75 alleged child offenders who were recruited by the Islamic State (ISIS). The cases had led to the misconstrued holding of the children, but upon review, the Human Rights Watch ordered the release of the children, using reasons like a lack of evidence and preventing double jeopardy, as well as provisions of Iraq’s amnesty law. The 2016 Iraq Amnesty Law offers amnesty to persons who can show that they joined ISIS or another terrorist group against their will and did not commit a serious offense prior to joining the group.For years, Iraqi and Kurdistan judicial authorities have charged hundreds of children with terrorism for alleged ISIS affiliation. Several of the charges have been based on the dubious accusations and forced confessions of these children, regardless of the extent of their involvement with ISIS, if any. Such behavior from authorities has led to an international norm that children recruited by armed groups should be treated as victims, first and foremost, not as criminals.

In January 2020, a committee formed under the Nineveh Federal Court of Appeal and Bar Association, consisting of a judge, a general prosecutor, and a social worker. This committee adjudicated the cases of suspects who were children at the time of their alleged alliance with ISIS. The approach taken by this committee was one of compassion and complied very well with acknowledging the human rights of these child suspects. In June 2020, Iraqi judicial authorities dissolved the committee, saying it had reviewed all the pending cases, but another committee in Nineveh, Iraq, continued adjudicating such cases. In August 2020, an anonymous source close to the Nineveh Bar Association told the Human Rights Watch that the committee had reviewed 300 case files before being disbanded in June. They convicted 202 people, dropped charges against and released 31, and pardoned and released 44 under Iraq’s 2016 Amnesty Law. Three cases were dropped because the defendant had already served a sentence for the same crime, so to not invoke double jeopardy, the committee permanently ceased proceedings against the three people.

Arrested child suspects line a corridor, awaiting response from the police
Arrested child suspects line a corridor, awaiting response from the police. Source: Yahoo Images.

The committee, unlike other Iraqi courts, attempted to review individual cases more fairly and better apply international standards. By doing so, it was able to convict the guilty and release the innocent, which Iraqi courts do not have the best record for. In the Iraqi-Kurdistan regions, children have been tried in Kurdistan and re-tried for the same crime in Baghdad-controlled territory, with courts ignoring whether or not the child had been acquitted or convicted and already served a sentence in Kurdistan.

This has been the case since the advent of ISIS in Iraq: hundreds of children have been charged with crimes of terror, and such convictions have been justified under Iraq’s 1983 Juvenile Welfare Act. The Act states that the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 9 in Iraq and 11 in the Kurdistan region. Children that are under 18 at the time of the alleged crime are sent to a “youth rehabilitation school” which is designed to provide social rehabilitation and reintegration via educational or vocational training. However, a source within the Tal Kayf prison said that “the cells are identical to those for adult detainees, with no access to any reading or studying materials besides the Quran.”

What needs to be done?

The Nineveh committee is the first step towards attaining a more efficient and fair judicial system in Iraq where ISIS affiliation does not automatically translate to imprisonment. Children should only be detained as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period, in compliance with international law. Countries should provide proper assistance for children illegally recruited by armed groups and/or forces, including assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration. The Iraqi government and Kurdistan Regional government should amend their counterterrorism laws to end the detention and prosecution of children solely for participating in ISIS training or membership with recognition of international law that prohibits recruiting children into armed groups. And the High Judicial Council should permit committees to delve into more counterterrorism cases to avoid the trend of double jeopardy, while instructing judges across Iraq to release all children who have not committed crimes and ensure their proper rehabilitation and reintegration.

In the first half of 2020, Iraq has taken an essential step towards protecting the rights of children rather than trampling them. But this progress is at risk of Iraqi officials do not implement such steps elsewhere.

Prisoners of Conscience

Recently, upon landing at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, avowed critic of Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, Alexei Navalny, was arrested for allegedly violating the terms of a suspended sentence related to a 2014 embezzlement charge. The European Court of Human Rights later ruled that that trial had been politically motivated and resulted in an unfair conviction. The arrest came as no surprise; Navalny had made clear that he expected to be arrested when he returned home to Russia. Still, the Russian government’s blatant repression of one of their loudest critics inspired outrage and disappointment from around the world.

Photo of Alexei Navalny
Navalny in 2014. Evgeny Feldman / Novaya Gazeta. Wikimedia commons.

Navalny had been taken to hospital in Germany in after he became very ill aboard a flight from Tomsk to Moscow on August 20th and nearly died. He was in a coma for over two weeks before making a remarkable recovery. The German government in September determined with “unequivocal proof” from toxicology tests that Navalny had been poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok. In December, investigations by The Insider and Bellingcat with CNN and Der Spiegel implicated Russia’s Federal Security Service in the attempt on Navalny’s life. Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has been a target for criticism by Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation for years, called media reports that he had ordered Navalny’s poisoning a U.S. backed plot to discredit him. Putin suggested that Navalny was not important enough to be poisoned, adding “[i]f someone had wanted to poison him, they would have finished him off.”

Amnesty International last week added Navalny to its list of prisoners of conscience as a result of his arrest. Commenting on his detention, Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Moscow Office director, said, “Aleksei Navalny’s arrest is further evidence that Russian authorities are seeking to silence him. His detention only highlights the need to investigate his allegations that he was poisoned by state agents acting on orders from the highest levels.”

Protests in response to Navalny’s arrest and the widespread corruption amongst Russian political leaders erupted January 22nd. As of when this was written, over three-thousand our-hundred protestors had been arrested, including Navalny’s wife, lawyers, and more than twenty-five known associates. Most are being held without charge. In Moscow, more than fifteen-thousand protestors gathered and endured temperatures as low as negative fifty-eight degrees Fahrenheit.

Protestors in St. Petersburg, Russia
Protestors in St. Petersburg, Russia. Associated Press / AP Photo / Dmitri Lovetsky. Fair use.

Prisoners of conscience are those who are imprisoned because of their race, sexual orientation, religion, or political views, as well as those under persecution for the nonviolent expression of conscientiously held beliefs. The term was coined in 1961 in an article The Forgotten Prisoners by Peter Benenson, a lawyer and activist who founded Amnesty International. Today, Amnesty International is actively campaigning for the release of around one-hundred fifty documented prisoners of conscience, although the number of people who meet the definition is certainly much higher than that. Amnesty International figures that there are “likely thousands more”. Currently, Russia, Saudia Arabia, Iran, and Belarus have the highest number of known, documented prisoners of conscience, although information about political prisoners is sometimes heavily restricted, particularly in China and North Korea. It is likely that there are dozens, if not hundreds more prisoners of conscience in these countries alone.

Last year, Amnesty prisoner of conscience Rubén González was released after being held since 2018 on charges that he had “insulted” the armed forces in Venezuela. González had been acquitted in 2014 after a five year trial for organizing a strike. While he was imprisoned, he was the only civilian prisoner in the military wing of the La Pica prison in Monagas. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, criticized González’ conviction and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention characterized his imprisonment as arbitrary. Amnesty International’s campaign for González’ release is representative of their work across the globe, showing that international condemnation is an effective tool against the incarceration of prisoners of conscience.

In Iran, Nasrin Sotoudeh is a human rights lawyer who has twice been arrested for her campaigns both for opposition candidates and for women’s rights. In 2010, Sotoudeh was charged with spreading propaganda and conspiring to harm state security. The Washington Post characterized the arrest as emblematic of “an intensifying crackdown on lawyers who defend influential opposition politicians, activists, and journalists.” During her first imprisonment, Sotoudeh staged three hunger strikes, with two of them lasting four weeks and seven weeks respectively. In 2018, Nasrin was arrested again, and charged with espionage, dissemination of propaganda, and disparaging the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. For this, she was sentenced to five years.

Accurate information about prisoners of conscience can be hard to come by, because the states that are more commonly imprisoning people for ‘thought crimes’ are also the states more likely to be highly suppressive of reports about their human rights abuses. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, estimates of the number of prisoners of conscience range from absolutely none, reported by the Ministry of Interior, to thirty-thousand reported by the Islamic Human Rights Commission and the BBC. In addition to their arbitrary detention of political activists, Saudi Arabia has also been heavily criticized by human rights bodies for their prolific use of capital punishment, including against people who were children when they were accused of crimes. In 2016, Ali Sa’eed al-Ribh was executed, despite the government admitting during trial that he was under the age of eighteen at the time of his alleged crimes. Because Saudi Arabia is party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, they are legally required to ensure that no one under the age of eighteen at the time of a crime is sentenced to death or to life in prison without the possibility of release. Currently, several young Saudis are awaiting execution, including Ali al-Nimr, who was seventeen, Abdullah al-Zaher, who was sixteen, and Dawood al-Marhoon, who was seventeen when they were arrested. In addition, in 2017, Abdulkareem al-Hawaj’s death sentence was upheld on appeal for crimes committed when he was sixteen. All of their crimes relate to anti-government protests.

Photo of Loujain al-Hathloul
Loujain al-Hathloul. Creative Commons.

In 2018 and 2019, Saudi Arabia came down heavily on feminist activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, who has been imprisoned since May 2018. al-Hathloul is known for her campaigns against the driving ban, and has been detained many times previously for offenses such as driving a car and appearing on camera with her face and hair uncovered. For the first several months of her detention, she was not allowed to contact her family or lawyer. al-Hathloul was subjected to beatings, waterboarding, electric shocks, and sexual abuse. During her first trial in March of 2019, she was charged with “promoting women’s rights, calling for the end of the male guardianship system, and contacting international organizations and foreign media.” Saudi Arabia has, over the last decade or so, made some purely performative and milquetoast changes to their repressive policies. In 2017, King Salman decreed that women be allowed access to some government services without the consent of a male guardian. The case of al-Hathloul and others show without a doubt that nothing substantive has changed. Saudi Arabia continues to be one of the most repressive powers in the world — for women, for activists, for critics of the regime. All of this from a country that we, in the United States, continue to support economically and diplomatically. And, for the last four years, have only become closer with.

The plight of prisoners of conscience around the world should be a priority for any freedom loving people and all freedom loving states. Amnesty International continues to do important work to bring awareness to and win freedom for political and ideological prisoners. Hopefully, governments that believe in liberty will start to hold each other accountable and unite against states who do not. Until the last prisoner of conscience is freed.

Further reading:

Who Are Prisoners of Conscience?

List of Designated Prisoners of Conscience