Iraq rapidly executing Islamic State members

Hamza Hendawi, Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Maya Alleruzzo
Associated Press

Baghdad – More than a decade ago, Ismail Saleh says, a neighbor wanted to marry one of Saleh’s cousins. Following the custom of their clan in northern Iraq, she was meant to wed Saleh, so the family refused. And thus, he says, a feud was born.

Saleh now sits on death row in Baghdad, sentenced to hang after being accused of fighting for the Islamic State group, a charge he steadfastly denies. The chief evidence against him: the word of that neighbor.

“Sometimes I wake up and for a moment I feel that this death sentence and me being here is just a bad dream,” the 29-year-old told The Associated Press in an interview in a Baghdad prison.

Death sentences are being issued at a dizzying rate in Iraq’s rush to prosecute and punish suspected members of the Islamic State group, with more than 3,000 handed out over just the past few years. About 250 people condemned for alleged IS ties have been hanged since 2014, including 101 only last year.

Any allegation of having taken up arms for the militant group can bring the ultimate penalty, even while the evidence is thin and cursory.

The heavy reliance on informants is particularly glaring, given the potential that some are motivated by personal grudges. Informants never appear in court; their claims are passed to the judges in dry, written reports from intelligence officials with no hint of their possible motivation.

Thousands of defendants are pushed through the courts at a rapid clip, with individual trials as short as 10 or 15 minutes and a third of the cases ending in the death penalty. Witnesses are very rarely called and no forensic evidence presented, raising the likelihood of innocent people going to the gallows.

The cases are so flimsy that President Fuad Masum has refrained from ratifying many executions, which is required by law before they can be carried out, a senior official in the president’s office told the AP.

“We have doubts,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue.

“We didn’t find solid proof in some of the cases we’ve studied,” he said. “We attended some hearings and found the cases are ruled on quickly in one hearing.”

Still, the pressure is rising for executions to be carried out even more rapidly, including from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Last month, 13 people accused of IS ties were hanged within three hours of the president ratifying the death documents – an unusually quick turnaround.

The AP spoke to Ismail Saleh and two other Iraqis accused of being Islamic State group fighters who were sentenced to death, as well as to their families in and around the northern city of Mosul.

Like nearly all the other defendants, all three denied ties to IS. Not all the details of their accounts could be independently confirmed, but their stories – which raise reasonable doubts over their guilt – were not closely examined in court before they were condemned to die, underscoring the system’s weakness.

That judicial haste was readily apparent when the AP attended three consecutive days of court sessions in Baghdad in late May.

The court heard an average of a dozen cases a day, most involving accused IS members. During those three days, the presiding judge, Suhail Abdullah Sahar, imposed at least 10 death sentences.

“We do everything we can to get to the truth and we don’t want to be unfair to anyone,” Sahar told the AP. “These defendants are here on the strength of testimony given by a secret informer, neighbors or their own families.”

The judge acknowledged he knew some informers offered incriminating testimony to settle old scores, but gave no indication how he could differentiate true testimony from false.

Saleh told the AP that the feud with the family of his neighbor festered for years after the dispute over his cousin – even though Saleh ultimately didn’t marry her either.

In May 2017, shortly after his neighborhood was freed from IS militants, security forces arrested Saleh and sent him to a local prison, where he said he was tortured and beaten for four days. The neighbor, he was told, had turned him in, telling authorities he had been temporarily detained by IS because Saleh told the militants the neighbor had been a member of the police force.

During his brief trial in December, Saleh said the judge asked if he had informed on his neighbor.

“I said no,” Saleh recounted. “Then he asked me to leave during consultations. When I came back, I was sentenced to death.”

His crimes, according to a copy of the verdict obtained by the AP, were joining IS, fighting against security forces and informing on the neighbor. The ruling said it was based on the neighbor’s testimony and a confession by Saleh. Saleh says he indeed confessed – but only to stop the torture.

In Mosul, his family said Saleh had his own troubles with IS during its rule. Like his neighbor, he was detained when the militants learned he had applied for a policeman’s job in 2007, according to his mother, sister and wife.

After IS was driven out of Mosul, government-linked Shiite militiamen detained Saleh twice on suspicion of belonging to IS, each time holding him overnight, said his wife, Hind Zaki.

Zaki said she was two months pregnant with their sixth child when the army arrested Saleh for the final time. For the next three days, she said she received calls from his mobile phone and could hear him screaming in the background, as the caller told her that her husband had confessed to being an IS member and that she, too, was a member.

When she was five months pregnant, she said, an army officer and three soldiers kicked in the door of her home. The officer beat her, stuck a pistol in her mouth and threatened to rape her, Zaki said.

“At one point, I was barely conscious,” she said. “The soldiers kept telling him, ‘Let’s go before she dies.’

She finally saw her husband again after he was convicted, visiting him in prison with three of their children.

“I don’t even know if any of my children know that I have been sentenced to death,” Saleh said.

Quteiba Younis was 16 in 2014 when IS overran northern Iraq, including his home village of Areij. A typical teenager, he was into PlayStation and was just starting to get interested in cars. He swam in the Tigris River every day to escape the summer heat.

Shortly after the militants’ takeover, his father lost his job at a government fuel depot, so the teen – the eldest of 10 siblings – had a duty to support the family. He eventually found work as a guard at a cement factory taken over by IS, a job that required carrying a rifle.

That appears to have sealed his fate.