BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq on Wednesday handed over 188 Turkish children of suspected Islamic State militants to Turkey, while a court sentenced two former Islamic State members to death for joining the extremist group. They included one Frenchman and a Tunisian resident of France, bringing the number of French nationals condemned to death in the past week to seven.
The two developments Wednesday point to the enormous legacy left behind by IS and its so-called “caliphate” that once spanned a third of both Iraq and Syria. Besides the atrocities and devastation the group wreaked, thousands of foreigners — including hundreds of children born to parents who lived under or fought with the Islamic State group — have been caught in Iraq’s justice system.
At Baghdad airport, the 188 Turkish children were handed over to Turkish government representatives in the presence of Iraqi government officials and the U.N. children’s agency, Judge Abdul Sattar Bayraqdar said.
The French citizens are among 12 Frenchmen whom the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces handed over to Iraq in January. The Kurdish-led group spearheaded the fight against IS in Syria and has handed over to Iraq hundreds of suspected IS members in recent months. Trials for the 12 began Sunday and are considered a test for how the international community handles the thousands of foreign nationals who stayed, or were trapped, with the Islamic State group through its dying days.
Iraqi prosecutors say the French nationals are accused of belonging to IS, were parties or accomplices to its crimes, and threatened the national security of Iraq. Simply belonging to the extremist group is punishable by life in prison or execution under Iraq’s counter-terrorism laws.
On Wednesday, the Iraqi Criminal Court in Baghdad’s Karkh district sentenced a French man identified as Yassin Sakkam, 29, who left France in 2014 to fight with IS. The court also sentenced to death Mohammed Berriri, a 24-year-old who told the judge he worked as a sentry at an IS camp and did not take part in any battles in Syria, and never traveled to Iraq.
He said he regretted joining IS but did not regret traveling to Syria, adding that his goal was to help the Syrian people after watching videos of Syrian government bombardment of civilians. The judge said Berriri, a Tunisian, was a resident of France.
“I did not kill anyone, the Tanzeem kills. … I am innocent and I regret joining this group,” he said, using an Arabic word that means ‘organization’ to refer to IS.
The sentencings in Iraq come amid controversy about the legal treatment of Iraqis and foreigners suspected of joining IS at the height of its power in Syria and Iraq, when the militant group declared its self-styled caliphate. Human rights groups are concerned they are being rushed through Iraqi counterterrorism courts in trials that raise questions over whether justice is being done. Convictions are often based on confessions that defendants and rights groups say are extracted by intimidation, torture and abuse and without due process.
Although European IS members have been sentenced to death, none has actually been executed in Iraq. France has said Iraq does have jurisdiction to put the French men on trial, but said it will fight the death penalty.
In a statement, Judge Bayraqdar said there were also a few adults among the group of children handed over to Turkish authorities. They had been convicted of illegally crossing the border and have served out their sentences.
In an interview with Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency earlier in May, Turkey’s ambassador in Baghdad said he aimed to repatriate all children of Turkish IS families from Iraq ahead of Eid. Ambassador Fatih Yildiz also said Turkey asked Iraq to return all Turkish citizens but the process was complicated by an agreement that barred suspects with terror links from repatriation.
Iraqi President Barham Salih made a brief visit to Turkey on Tuesday and held talks with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.
Associated Press writer Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed reporting.