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Iraq: UN expert says prosecution of ISIL leadership must be fair and thorough

04 April 2019

  • Four ISIL leaders sentenced to death for belonging to terrorist organisation
  • Expert says should have faced charges of murder, torture, disappearance
  • No victims present at the trial; important they are involved in the legal process
  • Time to focus on and implement mechanisms of transitional justice

GENEVA (4 April 2019) – A UN human rights expert is calling on Iraq to ensure that the prosecution of the ISIL leadership is conducted in a transparent, fair and thorough manner – and includes the participation of victims in the legal process - saying that hasty and collective death sentences only did the country a disservice.
“The Government of Iraq should take appropriate steps to prosecute the crimes perpetrated against the Iraqi people, including alleged genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes,” said Agnes Callamardthe Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. “It should respect fair trial guarantees, ensure victim participation and uphold the right to truth.”

On 30 October 2018, four senior affiliates of the ISIL leadership, including two Syrian and two Iraqi nationals, were sentenced to death by the Karkh Criminal Court in Baghdad. The four men were charged with ISIL membership, under Iraqi counter-terrorism legislation, even though the information provided by the defendants themselves indicated that they may have been responsible for, or witness to, serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law.

“At the very least, the Iraqi prosecutors should have brought additional charges from the Iraqi penal code, such as charges of murder, torture or disappearance, against the defendants, for the purpose of accountability,” the expert said. 

The crimes allegedly committed by the senior leaders of ISIL concerned a large number of victims in and beyond Iraq, but no victims participated in the trial, or presented their testimony as witnesses. The expert recalled that the right to truth about gross human rights violations, including massive violations of the right to life, is an inalienable and autonomous right. The right of victims to access justice and participate in criminal proceedings against perpetrators has also been recognised under international human rights law as well as under the international counter-terrorism framework.

“There is no justice delivered in secrecy,” the expert said. “There is no truth in an unfair and fast-paced proceeding. The trial of these four ISIL senior leaders should be an important opportunity for the victims, victims’ families, and witnesses to report on their ordeals and to be heard. The trial should have shed light on the inner workings of ISIL and created a crucial judicial record of ISIL crimes against people.”

The expert also expressed concerns that international standards were not upheld during the legal proceedings. Grave violations of human rights law, including lack of access to legal council during detention and arrest, as well as defaulting on plea deals made during arrest or questioning, have been reported. If the death penalty is carried out this could constitute an arbitrary killing, the expert said.

“One week after the claims of military victory over ISIS in Syria - and 14 months after similar claims in Iraq - it is now time to focus on transitional justice, delivering justice and truth, to all victims of the unspeakable violence levelled at them for years,” the expert said. “Iraq has an historical opportunity to exercise the necessary leadership, in calling for regional justice mechanisms, and demanding the support and contribution of the coalition countries.” 

Callamard visited Iraq in 2017 and presented a report to the Human Rights Council in June 2018. She made a number of recommendations, including the pursuit of formal criminal accountability in line with international law. A letter has been sent to Iraqi authorities regarding this case; in addition, several other letters have been sent to countries of origin of foreign fighters in recent months.


Ms. Agnes Callamard (France), Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has a distinguished career in human rights and humanitarian work globally. Ms. Callamard is the Director of Columbia Global Freedom of Expression at Columbia University and has previously worked with Article 19 and Amnesty International. She has advised multilateral organizations and governments around the world, has led human rights investigations in more than 30 countries, and has published extensively on human rights and related fields

UN Human Rights, Country Page: Iraq

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