France Clashes With UN Human Rights Expert Over ISIS Suspects' Trials in Iraq

By Fayçal Benhassain | August 14, 2019 | 7:02pm EDT
A courtroom in Baghdad where French jihadists accused of belonging to the Islamic state are being tried. (Photo by Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images)

Paris ( – The French government is pushing back on criticism from a U.N. human rights expert over the fact French citizens who joined ISIS are standing trial in Iraq, a country with a death penalty.

Agnès Callamard, the U.N. “special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions,” urged Paris this week to repatriate seven French jihadists who have been sentenced to death in Iraq.

Public opinion in France remains opposed to the repatriation of French jihadists. ISIS has carried out several deadly attacks in France, including those in late 2015, when terrorists killed 130 people over three hours at a concert hall, sports stadium and restaurants in the French capital.

Callamard, who met with the jihadists in prison, sent a letter to the French government criticizing the suspects’ transfer early this year from Syria – where they had been held by Kurdish forces – to Iraq.

“France and the [anti-ISIS] coalition organized and sponsored this,” she charged, adding that the Syrian Kurds who had been holding them had opposed the transfer, favoring instead the establishment of an international tribunal in northeastern Syria, to deal with captured jihadists.

According to media accounts, the Kurds had little choice but to comply, as they lacked the resources to put the suspects on trial themselves – and in any case, France and other countries refused to allow Kurdish courts to try their nationals, since the Kurdish administration is not internationally recognized.

“There are serious allegations that the sentences were handed down following unfair trials, with the accused having no adequate legal representation or effective consular assistance,” Callamard wrote.

She noted that France does not want to judge its citizens who joined ISIS, but at the same time is opposed in principle to the death penalty.

Responding to the letter, the French foreign ministry of foreign affairs denied any involvement on the part of the French government in the transfer of the suspects to Iraq.

It said Callamard’s accusations were not supported by the facts, dismissing them as “pure speculation.”

It added that French jihadists imprisoned in Iraq have the same rights as French citizens in the same situation anywhere else in the world, and said consulate officials were closely following the cases.

FranceInfo TV this week said it had interviewed a Kurdish judge in Syria who, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Kurds had not wanted to transfer the French jihadists to Iraq – a country with the death penalty – but that France and the coalition organized and sponsored the transfers.

Callamard told the Le Monde daily that she found claims of France’s involvement to be credible, saying that the jihadist suspects told their families and lawyers they had seen French officials during their transfer. She said she also obtained testimonies from several unrelated sources in Syria and Iraq.

French lawyer Nabil Boubi, who represents seven of the jihadists imprisoned in Iraq, has for months been seeking answers to questions about how they had ended up in Iraq, and what role France had played.

Boubi has also criticized the speed of the trials, saying trial hearing typically lasted 20 minutes, with between one and three minutes of deliberation for each case. No French lawyer representing the men had been allowed access to them, he said.

The French government has not commented on claims, reported earlier this summer, that Iraq had offered to commute the death sentences in return for military equipment and millions of dollars from France.

Callamard charged that if France was involved in the prisoner transfers, that would have been a violation of “an absolute norm in international law which is that a state without the death penalty can in no way transfer an individual to a country where it continues to be applied.”

France abolished the death penalty in 1981 and has traditionally opposed the executions of its citizens in other countries.

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