Paris – European nations rarely miss a chance to slam the use of the death penalty by others, but they have largely turned a deaf ear to pleas from citizens facing execution in Iraq for fighting with the Islamic State group.
Several hundred foreigners, both men and women, are thought to have been detained in Iraq since the counter-offensive that dislodged IS fighters from the country’s urban centres last year.
Diplomatic efforts to secure their return to Europe for trial have been half-hearted at best, with few politicians eager to be seen defending people who joined the terror group behind the deaths of dozens on home soil in recent years.
More often they reiterate that Iraq has the sovereign right to try and punish people found guilty of killing its own citizens in an effort to create a modern “caliphate”.
The fate of European captives in Syria is even more complicated, since they have often been seized by Kurds who do not have a formally recognised state of their own.
Lawyers for French fighters in Syria, for example, have claimed they are being held “arbitrarily” by non-state authorities — an argument that has failed to sway official stances so far.
Faced with overwhelmingly hostile public opinion, humanitarian appeals have also made little traction, even when captives are being held with young children born after they left for Iraq and Syria.
On Sunday, an Iraqi court condemned a German woman to death by hanging after finding her guilty of belonging to IS, the first such sentence in a case involving a European woman.
So far, the German government has said only that it is providing “consular support” for four of its citizens held in Iraq, declining to provide details.
– ‘No leniency’ –
In December, an Iraqi-Swedish man was hanged along with 37 others accused of being IS or Al-Qaeda members, despite efforts by Sweden to have the prisoner serve a life sentence instead.
“These jihadists have never had any qualms about what they’re doing, and I don’t see why we should have any for them,” French defence minister Florence Parly said Monday.
Three French women captured after Iraqi forces retook the city of Mosul last July are awaiting trial in Baghdad, sources close to their cases say, and risk the death penalty as well.
Two of the women are being held along with their young children.
“When they are caught by local authorities, as far as possible they should be tried by these local authorities,” Parly added in a separate interview on Sunday.
Timeline showing selected key dates in the conflict in Iraq
Britain has also taken a firm stance against repatriation, as has Belgium, which denied a request by Tarik Jadaoun, a Belgium detained in Iraq, to be sent home in exchange for cooperating with the authorities.
“I don’t see how it’s possible to negotiate with war criminals,” Prime Minister Charles Michel said in December, adding that “there can be no leniency.”
Security experts generally discount the value of any intelligence offered by former extremists, while warning that bringing back their children exposes other risks.
Youths exposed to decapitations and other atrocities “could be time bombs, given what they have seen,” said Paris prosecutor Francois Molins, who has overseen investigations into terror attacks on French soil.
– Rule of law? –
Iraq is among the countries which execute the most prisoners, along with China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, according to Amnesty International.
Rights groups and lawyers have urged European governments to live up to their ideals.
Lawyers for one of the French women held in Iraq point to France’s intense diplomatic campaign for Serge Atlaoui, who faces the death penalty in Indonesia on drug trafficking charges.
“No matter how grave and horrific the acts, if a European citizen risks the death penalty, we must demand that the state holding him guarantee it won’t be carried out, or transfer him to his country of origin for trial,” said Patrick Baudoin of the International Federation of Human Rights.
“If we start allowing exceptions to this principle, we’re no longer applying the rule of law,” he said.
But a European diplomatic source said the principle was to let Iraqi courts rule as they see fit.
“If there’s a risk of capital punishment, we will intervene” via consular services as is the case anywhere else, the source said.
By Daphne Benoit