Iraqi security forces detain a suspected ISIS fighter in Mosul on February 25, 2017. Photo: AP
This series of special reports examines the struggles and path the survivors of ISIS — particularly minority groups in the Nineveh Plains and Shingal — have taken in their quest for justice after the extremist group rapidly controlled large swathes of territory in northern Iraq in 2014. Critical questions were asked: What do survivors want? What are they doing? What is and can be done at the community, governmental and international levels?
Iraqi authorities have been criticized for failing to conduct a thorough investigation of atrocities committed against the population by ISIS. While the central government is carrying out an investigation of sorts and some militants have gone through the judicial system, overall it has been haphazard and piecemeal. Unlike in the Kurdistan Region, however, in Baghdad there is no concerted effort to document evidence of ISIS atrocities towards prosecution and reconciliation.
In early April, Iraqi authorities announced that as many as 200 ISIS militants had defected in western Mosul and promised they would be brought to trial in a just manner.
“A large number of ISIS militants have surrendered to the security forces and it is ongoing,” said Najim al-Jabouri, the commander of the Nineveh Operations Command near ISIS’s last Iraqi stronghold in Mosul.
“Upon the request of the surrendering militants, the general commander of the armed forces has guaranteed the militants that they will be tried just and their lives will be protected until the court has issued their verdicts per their crimes,” he added.
The US-led international coalition against ISIS has supported Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces. It estimates around 1,000 ISIS fighters remain in Mosul, but other than bounties for top leaders, there has not been a campaign for justice, as there was in the 2003 invasion to oust Baathists.
"The coalition has no role in detaining forces ... The enemy has more-than-likely decided in most cases that they will fight to the death," said US Col. John Dorrian, the coalition spokesperson. "There have been some that have been captured and they are in the hands of the Iraqi security forces.”
Previous trials of ISIS militants in Iraq had ended with their executions. Verdicts that were widely accepted by Iraqis.
“Today is the day of victory for all of us, the day where happiness has entered our broken hearts,” Sabah Radhi, the family member of one of 1,700 Shia military personnel massacred by ISIS at Camp Speicher in August 2014 told the New York Times after 36 ISIS were executed for the crime two years later.
Iraqi paramilitary fighters carry coffins containing the remains of ten of their comrades who were killed in the Speicher massacre in 2014. Photo: AFP
Rudaw attempted repeatedly to discuss with Iraqi judicial authorities their efforts to gather evidence and hear cases in the court system, but the questions went unanswered.
The Ministries of Justice and Health are overseeing efforts to document mass graves and the Human Rights Committee of the Iraqi parliament is carrying out some documentation.
“As the Human Rights Committee, we have our office in Mosul, near the war, and we record all the violations that happened there,” said Ashwaq Jaff, MP, adding that they also work in other provinces where Iraqi forces have battled the terrorist group.
They face several problems, however.
They are gathering information from persons fleeing war, often with just the clothes they were wearing or what few possessions they were able to grab.
“It is not easy because most of them they come out without IDs and are in the camps. This is one,” Jaff explained.
Secondly, gathering independent information from active war zones is impossible. ISIS is using civilians as human shields and many have died, creating new mass graves under the rubble, Jaff said, in sites her committee cannot access.
“For this, you cannot say, I have for example 1,000 victims or 400 victims. Until now we don’t know.”
Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi researcher specialized in security affairs and armed groups, believes that, since March 2015, some 64 mass graves have been discovered and Iraqi authorities are setting up a database in order to identify the victims via DNA.
"The Ministry of Health's medical department has a special and new technology regarding this. But it's very limited. And it's not therefore documenting the entire massacre or the whole graves - that's a huge number that couldn't be covered by this limited capacity,” he detailed.
When a mass grave is discovered, the Ministry of Health in coordination with the judicial system notify people who are missing family members that they may submit a request to compare DNA samples and determine if their loved one’s remains were in the mass grave.
“But it takes from one month to a full year — the process itself,” Hashimi explained, because of limited staff and capacity.
According to Hashimi, the central government has yet to complete a single evidentiary file. He believes this is a problem of both lack of skill and lack of political will, as will be discussed in the following article.
In the Kurdistan Region, minority groups have formed their own organizations to record what has happened to their people under ISIS. Many do so with some level of coordination with the Kurdistan government. They do not have similar relationships with Baghdad.
“We are the only organization associated with collecting data on Christian atrocities. We have permission from the KRG, but we want a similar arrangement with the Iraqi central government," said Nawzad Hakim of Shlomo, a Christian organization.
That is unlikely to happen, however, Hashimi believes. He says the judiciary system does not want local communities or organizations to lead these efforts, as it only trusts government entities.
Iraq's capital city of Baghdad. Photo: AFP
There is also little coordination between Erbil and Baghdad. Judicial authorities in the two governments operate as two independent organizations, said Judge Rizgar Hamma Amin of the Iraqi High Tribunal.
He believes that, in order to prosecute ISIS militants, the two should be coordinating. “The law, the legalities are there but it’s a matter of personal communication between legal people here and legal people there in Baghdad,” he said on the sidelines at a recent conference in Erbil. “It’s a matter of personal relations.”
This Part V in a Rudaw English series of special reports on what is being done to document ISIS atrocities and achieve justice for survivors. The authors thank all at Rudaw who contributed including Zhelwan Zeyad and Salim Ibrahim for their editing and translations.