Field Notes from Iraq – Looking at justice in Kurdish and ISIS courts

November 2018

Hassan Sham IDP Camp for Arabs, near Arbil and Mosul on the border of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. By Levi Clancy on 21 January 2017. Wikimedia Commons.Hassan Sham IDP Camp for Arabs, near Arbil and Mosul on the border of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. Photo by Levi Clancy, 21 January 2017. Wikimedia Commons.

By Professor René Provost*

From Google Maps: Erbil is about 300 km north of Baghdad.

When I went to Iraqi Kurdistan in the fall of 2017 to research ISIS and Kurdish courts, the Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Erbil seemed innocuous enough – until we started our descent. Flying in a tight spiral, the plane kept over the city of Erbil to avoid overflying any area occupied by ISIS, the closest of which was about 50 km to the south of the city.

At our arrival, the airport itself was very quiet, as we were the only plane there. This was in stark contrast to the massive US Air Force base just next to Erbil International Airport, a busy hub with low-flying attack helicopters buzzing around. Border control was as bureaucratic as anywhere, with the difference that the officials all were part of the Kurdish Regional Government. In the entire Kurdish Region of Iraq, there is no central Iraqi government presence; the Kurds run their own border patrol, police, intelligence service, military, health, education, etc.

I was told that a trench, ten meters deep and ten meters wide, physically separates the Kurdish region from the rest of Iraq, an area that for several years was under the control of ISIS. Strangely, the visa stamped in my passport did proclaim ‘Republic of Iraq’, but it would not be accepted by Iraqi officials at the border with Iraq.

Two weeks after I completed my trip, in the wake of the referendum on independence held in the region, the Iraqi government declared a no-fly zone over the entire Kurdish region, effectively shutting down Erbil International Airport. [The airport was blockaded between September 29, 2017 and March 14, 2018].

Visite nocturne au palais de justice d’Erbil

Pendant mon séjour au Kurdistan iraquien, j’ai rencontré une panoplie d’acteurs en contact avec l’administration de la justice, dont des avocats, des représentants de la société civile, des ministres du gouvernement kurde. Mon ‘fixer’ (chauffeur-interprète-entremetteur), un juriste sympathique et intelligent, m’avait proposé d’aller rencontrer un juge au palais de justice d’Erbil. Le juge en question était de garde de 21h00 à 8h00 le lendemain matin, le seul juge en fonction pour une ville de plus d’un million d’habitants.

Nous avons rencontré un autre avocat dans le stationnement désert du palais de justice vers 22h00 et, après divers palabres, réussi à être admis auprès du juge. Celui-ci, dans la jeune quarantaine avec une moustache lustrée, vêtu d’un complet légèrement trop grand, siégeait dans une grande salle absolument dénudée sauf pour un grand bureau et deux sofas, le tout sous l’éclairage glauque de néons. Dans un coin, un téléviseur était allumé avec le son coupé, offrant un divertissement au juge entre les irruptions périodiques d’un sergent de police qui apportait des dossiers à considérer.

Après environ une heure de conversation avec le juge sur le système judiciaire iraquien, une jeune femme fut amenée par le sergent pour un interrogatoire. Elle déclara que son (ex-)petit ami avait posté des photos intimes d’elle sur le web, sur quoi divers membres de sa famille étaient allés pour tabasser le garçon, mais n’avaient trouvé que ses frères et son oncle, qu’ils avaient battus à la place. L’oncle avait été transporté à l’hôpital, mais les deux frères avaient été amené au poste de police et vinrent témoigner par la suite, couverts de bandages ensanglantés. La décision du juge fut de placer les deux frères, en principe victimes du crime, en détention pour 24h afin – a-t-il expliqué par la suite – de calmer les esprits et éviter une vendetta entre les deux familles. La jeune femme déclara au juge qu’elle ne voulait pas rentrer chez elle, inquiète de la réaction de son père à l’existence de sa relation et de telles photos; la solution du juge fut de la placer dans un refuge pour femmes pour la nuit.

Durant toute l’instruction de cette affaire, qui s’étendit sur plus de deux heures, la télévision dans le coin de la pièce diffusait des épisodes de ‘Surprises sur prise’ montrant de faux policiers jouant des tours dans les rues de Montréal, ajoutant une touche d’irréel à toute la chose. Le juge a déclaré que c’était son émission préférée.

Little justice in ISIS courts

Entire villages have been destroyed and are deserted.

A camp for internally displaced people in Iraqi Kurdistan on the outskirts of Mosul.

The refugee camp is in a stone desert, with temperatures soaring to 46C during the day. Photos by René Provost.

Part of the goal of the visit to Iraq was to gather information about ISIS courts. One source could have been ISIS fighters detained by the Kurds, but I was offered access only to very low-level fighters, unlikely to offer much interesting information. I asked two Kurdish ministers about detained ISIS leaders, but neither would confirm that any such person existed. The other source of information were people who had lived under ISIS control for months or years.

Mosul had been recaptured from ISIS about six weeks before I arrived, and fighting continued in the area, with hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing the fighting to seek refuge in the Kurdish region of Iraq. I visited one camp on the outskirts of Mosul, crossing ghost villages in which not a single building was left intact from the fighting, to get to the heavily guarded camp.

Thanks to my fixer’s wasta (connections), access had been secured, and an interpreter and guide to the camp provided. For more than three hours, I went from tent to tent to interview people, mostly women with their children, about life under ISIS and their encounter with the ISIS ‘justice’ system.

This was in the middle of a stone desert, with a temperature above 47 Celsius outside the tents, much higher inside the tents despite the attached noisy cooling units. The oven-like heat and the slowness of translation made the gut-wrenching stories told by the refugees all the more overwhelming.

In the first tent, after about fifteen minutes, the oldest boy of the family, about ten years old, came in with a bottle of water and one glass. He carefully filled it and handed it to me so that I could drink first, as the honoured guest. Despite all the stories about people falling seriously ill – some for months – after drinking unsafe water in Iraq, I took the glass and emptied it with a thanks to the boy; it was unthinkable to refuse the hospitality of people who had so little to share.

The stories I heard about ISIS courts revealed how little justice there was to be had there, with systematic beatings and torture, blindfolding for court appearances, no right to counsel or to call witnesses, and not rarely ending in public executions. At the end of each interview, I asked the person if they knew someone else in the camp who had had dealings with ISIS justice. Each time, they would walk me over to another tent, usually accompanied by the children, and they would sit and listen to the next interview. This repeated itself for the next three hours, so that by the last tent, there were more than 40 people listening, and I had drunk a considerable amount of water.

By then, I thought we were nearly done, and desperately needed to go to the bathroom. But more people kept walking in to tell their story. In the end, I had to ask the interpreter to explain my urgent need to the assembled crowd. They all thought it was quite amusing, and that mild embarrassment proved to be the only negative consequence of drinking all that water.


In 2015, Professor René Provost was awarded a research fellowship by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, for his project to explore the possibility of convincing armed, non-state groups to apply justice by respecting minimum standards of international humanitarian law in conflict zones.


 

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