Empty streets and destroyed buildings are seen in the town of Qaraqosh, south of Mosul, Iraq, April 12, 2017.
Marko Djurica / Reuters

Qaraqosh was once the largest Christian town in Iraq, but after the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) swept into neighboring Mosul in 2014, it became a burned-out shell. Since its liberation, three months into the Battle for Mosul, Qaraqosh regained some normalcy as residents trickled back in and began reconstruction. Part of that rebuilding inevitably involved addressing the damage that civilians sustained during the war against ISIS and, more complexly, deciding what to do with former ISIS fighters in the region. These are some of the challenges that the United Court of Nineveh, which relocated from Mosul after the fighting intensified, is now tasked with resolving. Although the court normally processes civil disputes in the Nineveh province, it now also oversees war reparations and holds investigations of captured ISIS fighters. 

The United Court of Nineveh occupies two buildings in Qaraqosh. One is used to process the ISIS-issued identification documents of Mosul residents who seek to exchange ISIS birth certificates, death certificates, and marriage licenses for official Iraqi ones. The other is used to hear remuneration cases and decide the fate of former ISIS members.

When I visited in May, the ground in front of the second building, a derelict, two-story structure that looked like it was once somebody’s home, was littered with strips of cloth that had been used as makeshift hand-ties and blindfolds for the suspected ISIS fighters. Inside, on the ground floor, the rooms around the pre-trial holding cells buzzed with the quiet conversations of those waiting to make a compensation claim for damages wrought by the war—a destroyed car, a leveled home. During the working week, more than 300 people can be seen shuffling outside the converted home and vying for a place before a judge. Public buses and taxis are a permanent fixture in front of the building—a striking sight in a city that had been mostly destroyed by fighting.

On one afternoon, I watched as a man made his case before the civil judge. “My name is Rayan Mahmoud, and under God I swear I will tell the truth,” he said. “They destroyed my car. ISIS burned the area and the cars to use the smoke to shield themselves from airstrikes.” The judge asked him to bring in some witnesses next week, and the man left.

The United Court of Nineveh, which comprises only three judges and a handful of investigators, enables the city of Mosul to at least uphold a veil of justice, allowing insurgents to pay for their own lawyers or have one appointed to them. Yet over the course of several hours one afternoon, I did not see a single lawyer speak in defense of a client. Instead, they mostly stood aside, sometimes picking grime from under their fingernails. There was a sense that those in the room believed the suspects were guilty until proven otherwise.

The two judges heading the investigations in Qaraqosh—one for the civil suits and the other for criminal complaints—are both from Mosul. Sadoon al-Hassan Yami, the criminal judge, said that he refers most of his cases to the criminal court in Baghdad. The reason is that the United Court of Nineveh does not issue convictions or sentences but instead serves as a link between officers who arrest suspected ISIS fighters and the judges in Baghdad who eventually sentence them. In carrying out its investigations, the court seeks to confirm the validity of the reports on and interviews with the fighters during their initial capture. The investigators and judges look for holes and cracks in the narrative, repeatedly asking questions to offer the prisoners a chance to tell the truth. Then they send their findings onto Baghdad for a trial.

“We have an issue with security, and so we send them to Baghdad,” the head judge, Salem Muhammad Nori Al Badrani, told me, alluding to the strains that the fight in Mosul puts on the town. “They complete the investigations there.” Yonis Muhammad al-Jomaeli, who oversees the civil complaints, works in an office across from Yami. Between them sit officers from the Iraqi special forces, wearing their dark sunglasses and tactical vests even indoors.

In another room across the hall, investigators fingerprinted and conducted interviews with suspected ISIS members and those who have admitted to participating in atrocities like the Sinjar Massacre, in which 2,000 to 5,000 Yazidis were slaughtered.

One of the suspects up for questioning that day was a small man with black rings around his eyes who sat hunched before the investigator with his lawyer by his side. His nom de guerre was Abu Hozaefa. He looked no older than 30 and wore a zip-up hoodie with the words “Fifth Avenue” printed across the front. He had been arrested under the suspicion that he was an ISIS militant and had colluded to help the organization. Now he was in the courthouse to face a decision on whether he would be sent to Baghdad with a favorable or unfavorable report.

“I trained in the Hamam al-Alil region for 30 days,” he said, referring to the city south of Mosul where ISIS massacred 300 civilians as Iraqi forces expelled the group from the area late last year. “The training included religion courses, physical training, and training for weaponry, especially Kalashnikovs. After finishing the training, I delivered military uniforms for ISIS and I delivered Kalashnikovs.” 

An investigator asked the man if he was then taken to Diwan al-Jend, ISIS’s main military and defense body.

“No,” the man said. “I belonged to Dewan al-Morabata, at the Jared Police Station in Hammam al-Alil.” This meant that he was part of a protection unit rather than an actual fighter on the frontlines. He said that he had not killed anyone during his time with ISIS and was but a passive member who joined out of necessity to save his life. Even so, the best outcome that this man could hope for would probably be a prison sentence or a stint fighting with anti-ISIS militias, but that was up to Baghdad. 

There is little hierarchy to the levels of offences committed, and most fall under one charge: terrorism. There are several options for those sent to trial on such a charge. According to Al Monitor, if they are convicted, they can be sentenced to between 15 years to life in prison or receive the death penalty under Iraq’s 2005 counterterrorism law. If they are not convicted, they could then be set free, although no one that I saw standing before the United Court of Nineveh was spared from being sent to Baghdad for a trial. A local lawyer, who requested anonymity, told me that the court, in some instances, sends many suspects who were found not to have killed in the name of ISIS to Sunni militias fighting ISIS.

The criminal interrogations are quick, lasting between five and 15 minutes. Some 60 accused go through this court each day. And yet their fates seem almost sealed before they walk in. The atmosphere was surprisingly lighthearted, and the lawyers and judges were always smoking in the room. When a convicted man spoke, he was often laughed at and treated with intense suspicion. 

“Did you fire mortars or missiles at our troops?” an investigator asked a young man who looked no older than a teenager.

“No, we did not,” he said of his ISIS battalion.

“You were just using firearms? Tell the truth! What about your friends?”

“Some of them were using mortars and missiles,” he said, correcting his lie.

“Did you have foreign and Arab fighters with you?”

“We had many different nationalities, and they were always at the front line, and many of them were killed in those battles,” the man said. “And I am telling the truth without you forcing me.”

“Are you regretful?” a judge asks.

“Yes,” the man said before he was sent away. “I am regretful.” It was not clear if he was, but he seemed tired, as though he had given up.

Liberation forces have been rounding up supporters and ISIS fighters with more intensity in recent weeks. With the last of the fighters holed up in Mosul, more snatch-and-grab operations are underway. Some of these fighters, of course, will never even see the court since mistakes are prevalent in the Iraqi judicial system, which lacks checks and balances at all levels.

For the ones that make it to this court, it seems that there is often more to their story than can be explained by the label, “terrorist.” Some join out of necessity for safety or compensation, others are attracted to the group for religious beliefs, and many are only peripheral members and may not have taken part in atrocities or fighting. Those that fall in this grey area are the ones that Iraq must reckon with, and fairly. Ignoring this problem could endanger the rebuilding of the country post-ISIS and prevent sustainable peace from taking hold.

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