BAGHDAD — “When did you join ISIS?” asked Judge Suhail Abdalla, a tall man with a gaunt face and penetrating eyes. He barely lifted his gaze from the legal file in front of him.
“I didn’t join,” Ahmed, a 37-year-old from Abu Ghraib, replied from the wooden cage in the middle of the courtroom at Baghdad’s Central Criminal Court.
“But this is your confession,” Judge Abdalla said matter-of-factly, pointing to a piece of paper in the file.
According to that confession, Ahmed had pledged allegiance to ISIS, and acted as a low-level operative who ferried suicide bombers to their targeted locations. But there was a catch: He’d been tortured by investigators into confessing to such deeds.
“I have a medical report that I have been tortured,” Ahmed cried out in the court. Unlike the other 10 suspects on trial that day who all claimed to have confessed under torture, Ahmed was the only one with a medical report to prove it. But that didn’t seem to have an impact on the judge.
After 10 minutes of proceedings, and with no witnesses or other evidence presented, Ahmed was found guilty. He was handed a life sentence, which under Iraqi law will put him behind bars for 20 years.
Ahmed’s case is par for the course. Judges tend to disregard allegations of torture and often convict suspects based on coerced confessions, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. The rapid-fire trials of alleged ISIS members come on the heels of a bloody, three-year war that has left Iraq’s society deeply divided and much of the country’s north in ruins. Over 19,000 Iraqis are currently being held in the country’s prisons on terror-related offenses, at least 3,000 of whom have already been sentenced to death since the war against ISIS began in 2013.
A fair judicial process that delivers justice for victims and accountability for perpetrators is seen as a critical component of post-conflict reconciliation. But instead of bridging the gaping sectarian divides left by years of war and terror, these trials are tearing open new ones.
“Some officials are acting based on sectarian motives, and not according to the laws of the state.”
If Iraq’s recent history is anything to go by, mass incarcerations coupled with unjust verdicts could soon provide fertile ground for another wave of radicalization. ISIS rose to prominence partly by courting young men from disenfranchised Sunni communities that suffered from abuse and arbitrary arrests in the wake of the 2003 American-led invasion. The terror group’s top commanders met and networked while in detention at Camp Bucca, an American-run prison.
Analysts and Iraq observers worry that recent history may repeat itself.
“If one looks at why young men and boys were pushed into the hands of extremist groups like ISIS, a lot of the reason stems from them and their communities being victims of abuse by Iraqi forces,” said Belkis Wille, a senior researcher for Iraq at Human Rights Watch. “These unjust verdicts in these trials are further entrenching the marginalization of this community.”
Many Sunnis believe the flawed justice process is rooted in sectarian hatred.
“Some officials are acting based on sectarian motives, and not according to the laws of the state,” said Hameed Obeid Al Mutlaq, a former lawmaker from the Sunni province of Anbar.
As adherents of the same sect that ISIS claimed to champion, Sunnis feel targeted by the Shia-led government simply based on their religious affiliation. During the war, Shia militia that are recognized by the Iraqi government were implicated in the killing and disappearance of Sunni civilians. They also stand accused of destroying Sunni villages in an effort to prevent Sunni communities from returning to their areas.
Al Mutlaq says that even though the war is officially over, these militia continue to wield considerable power over government institutions.
“There’s pressure on the judges. They are afraid of powerful militia like the Popular Mobilization Forces, which are influenced by Iran,” he said.
A murky process
Ahmed’s case epitomizes the complexities of justice and reconciliation in Iraq. Like him, many defendants claim they are innocent victims of an unjust system fraught with sectarianism, violence, and corruption. Judges, on the other hand, say they are dealing with a sophisticated terror group that knows exactly how to navigate the process.
“I didn’t see an investigative judge,” Ahmed told the court. “They made me fingerprint a blank piece of paper.”
For the judges, such statements are straight out of the ISIS playbook, which goes something like this: Once arrested, ISIS members quickly confess in front of investigators, “knowing all too well that they have the means to make them talk,” according to one prosecutor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. But when they finally stand before the judge in public court, they walk back their earlier statements. Well-versed in Iraqi law, they allege human rights violations like torture. Some claim they never saw an investigative judge, and that investigators forced them to sign and fingerprint a blank paper, on which officials later wrote false confessions.
As Judge Abdalla rattled off his questions, Ahmed spoke in a firm voice, denying the charges against him and vehemently reminding the judge of his medical report.
“You are accused of planting an IED targeting an army convoy of a Brigade 54 officer. What do you say to that?”
“I don’t know anything about it,” Ahmed replied. “I have a medical report that I have been tortured.”
“Guilty or innocent?”
“I swear I’m innocent, sir,” Ahmed insisted.
Unlike most ISIS suspects who were defended by poorly paid public lawyers appointed on the day of the trial, Ahmed’s family had hired a private attorney.
Muhammad Al Khafaaji, a short, stout man with pointy eyebrows and a well-groomed goatee, is a well-known and experienced lawyer who has dealt with hundreds of terrorism cases. He understood both the gravity of the accusations against Ahmed and his limited options for defense. Public opinion against ISIS was harsh, and judges didn’t want to be seen as letting them off easy. But Ahmed had a chance. The case against him depended solely on a confession that, according to medical records, had been extracted under torture.
“You are accused of planting an IED targeting an army convoy of a Brigade 54 officer. What do you say to that?”
Al Khafaaji first pointed to the lack of evidence against his client: The area where the IED had been planted was under CCTV surveillance, but investigators had failed to secure video footage to prove Ahmed’s involvement. No weapons had been found with his client and there were no witnesses or other material evidence to support the charges. Al Khafaaji gave the court a copy of Ahmed’s medical report.
“My client's confession in the primary and judicial phases came as a result of severe torture,” Al Khafaaji said, as Judge Abdalla inspected the report.
According to Judge Abdulsattar Bayraqdar, the spokesperson of the Higher Judicial Council which oversees courts, such a medical report should have nullified Ahmed’s confession. “We aren’t denying that there is torture by members of the security forces. But any evidence that is brought through torture isn’t recognized,” he said.
Growing up in war
If Ahmed was indeed guilty, the same government that was now punishing him may have been responsible for his radicalization. Three times before this trial, in 2006, 2008, and 2014, security forces had detained him in his home town of Abu Ghraib. On all three occasions, Ahmed had been released due to lack of evidence. Ahmed’s lawyer suspects that he may have been radicalized during his last stint in prison.
Ahmed hadn’t had much of a youth. He was 15 when his father died, and he’d helped his mother Shamsa shepherd his six younger siblings through the turmoil that had engulfed Iraq for much of his lifetime. Soon after the U.S. invasion, as Iraqis began to see their liberators as occupiers, and as frustration morphed into violence, Abu Ghraib turned into a flashpoint of the insurgency. Suicide bombings became the norm. “Every time there was an incident, the army would round up all the young men,” Shamsa said. (Ahmed’s family asked not to be identified by their full names for fear of retaliation from authorities.)
In 2006, while in his final year of college, Ahmed was detained after one such attack. He was released without charges, but only after languishing in prison for seven months, enduring squalid conditions and frequent abuse. “Of course, he was angry. He was at the beginning of his youth,” Shamsa said. “Prison is not easy, and seven months isn’t little.”
According to his mother, Ahmed quickly got over it. He returned to his studies, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in French and a diploma in English, and began looking for jobs. But employment opportunities were rare in a country crumbling amid civil war, corruption, and economic decline. Fearing for his safety, Shamsa didn’t want him to work as a translator for American forces, so he took to painting walls and fixing electrical circuits at construction sites while looking after his younger siblings. “He was like a father to us,” said his brother Mohammed. “He was adamant that we all complete our education.”
“Every time there was an incident, the army would round up all the young men.”
The violence in Abu Ghraib raged on, and Shamsa, anxious for her four sons, started looking for ways to move to another neighborhood. But in 2008, before the family had a chance to relocate, Ahmed, then 27, was arrested a second time. Another year in prison followed, and again a judge dismissed the charge against him for lack of evidence.
With each arrest, a return to normalcy became more elusive. “After you have been in prison once, you have a black spot on your record,” Ahmed told his mother during one of her prison visits. Security forces knocked on the door again in 2014, and the family watched in disbelief as Ahmed was taken away once more. He was acquitted in 2015, but the arrest squads returned for him in early 2017.
By the time he stood trial in early 2018, Ahmed had missed out on four years of his youth in Iraq’s prison system, without ever having been convicted.
“Verdicts!” Judge Abdalla called out. It was the end of the day’s hearings, and the defendants were ushered back into the wooden cage inside the courtroom. One by one, Judge Abdalla read out the court’s decisions.
Of the 11 ISIS suspects who stood trial that day, only one was released. Ahmed’s written verdict made no mention of the medical report. Instead, it reaffirmed his confession: “His confession came detailed, well-reasoned and is proper for the court to rely on,” the verdict found. It made further reference to nine mobile phones, a flash drive, and SIM cards seized during Ahmed’s arrest, but it provided no details on their contents and whether they constituted additional evidence.
“The judiciary is causing more injustice. They are just pinning cases on anyone based on false reports.”
For Ahmed’s lawyer Mohammed Al Khafaaji, the sentence was a relief. “He was going to get death,” Al Khafaaji told me when we met later that day. “But because I got him the medical report, the sentence was reduced.”
Ahmed’s family, too, felt relieved that he had escaped the gallows. But they also reeled from what they saw as a great injustice.
“We feel oppressed,” his mother said. “The judiciary is causing more injustice. They are just pinning cases on anyone based on false reports. My son is innocent, 100 percent.”
“I feel a burning inside for my brother, nothing more,” said Ahmed’s brother.