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ISIS Fighters On Trial In Kurdish Territory


An Iraqi court is trying some accused ISIS fighters from France next week. It is a controversial proceeding that illustrates a bigger problem. Thousands of foreigners fought for the Islamic State, but their governments don't want to bring them home for trial. Most are in Syria. Trials are going on there in the part of the country that's controlled by Kurds.

NPR's Jane Arraf was given unprecedented access to one of those courts and is back in the Kurdish region of Iraq and joins us there now. Jane, thanks for being with us.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And why are the French fighters being tried in Baghdad?

ARRAF: Well, they were handed over to Iraq by Syrian forces because they're accused of fighting for ISIS in Iraq - that's where the crimes were committed - and also because France doesn't want to try them. So these are fighters captured with the fall of the territorial caliphate, you'll remember, in March in northeast Syria.

So France and other European countries, where a lot of these fighters come from, would find it difficult to prosecute them there. The thing is they're having them tried in Baghdad, where trials aren't very credible and where there's the death penalty, which is banned in France and almost every other European country.

SIMON: Of course, that's in Iraq, but most of these fighters are left over from ISIS in Syria. What's the situation there?

ARRAF: It's really interesting. So Syria, so far, hasn't tried the foreigners. They're hoping for an international tribunal. But what they are doing is they're trying the Syrians and some of the Iraqis because they don't want to send the Iraqis back for death sentences either. And they broke away from Syria - from the Syrian government and the Syrian justice system. So they've created their own justice system. So far, they've tried about 7,000 Syrians and some Iraqis. There are another 6,000 waiting.

And we were allowed to attend an ISIS trial - first time journalists have been let into the courtroom. So we go in, and then the defendant comes in. They take a blindfold off him. He sits in an ordinary office chair. We're on sofas. And then the presiding judge speaks. Let's listen to a little bit of that.


AMINA: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: So that's Judge Amina (ph). She's one of the judges. Every panel of judges has at least one woman. And she's reading back evidence to the accused fighter that he served as an assistant to a senior Iraqi ISIS leader. He admits all of this, and the judge later says he'll probably be sentenced to 20 years, the maximum.

SIMON: Jane, how credible are these trials as judicial proceedings?

ARRAF: Well, these - this is the Kurdish-run region of northeast Syria. It's a self-administered region. And they say they're trying to conform to international standards of human rights, which is really kind of a rarity in the region. So they've set up appeals courts. They have defense lawyers. They have these panels of judges. And again, no death sentence. One judge told us that revenge was for the weak. They aim at rehabilitation.

But at the end of the day, their doing this will have, really, any international support, and that's why they're calling for an international effort to try foreign ISIS fighters, for instance.

SIMON: Are they getting any support in the international community to create this kind of tribunal?

ARRAF: That is a really tough one. You've got, like, 1,200 foreign fighters, a lot of them European, in Syria. Sweden has proposed an international tribunal in the region, either in Syria or Iraq, and they're holding a conference next month to rally support.

But all of this would take a lot of time and a lot of money. The bottom line, though, is Kurds say ISIS is an international problem. And when it comes to foreign fighters, they say these countries the people came from to fight in Syria and Iraq have to be part of the solution.

SIMON: NPR's Jane Arraf, thanks so much for being with us today.

ARRAF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.
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