Iraq Will Hang 3,000 Prisoners Over ISIS Links, Report Shows

ISIS prisoners Mosul
Christian militia fighters transport four alleged members of ISIS that were found inside a tunnel in Mosul, on December 20, 2016. JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Iraq has sentenced 3,130 prisoners to death for alleged links to ISIS and other militant organizations since 2013, as the nation's criminal justice system struggles to deal with thousands of prisoners from its four-year fight against extremist groups.

Iraq has detained or imprisoned at least 19,000 people accused of terror-related offenses, according to an Associated Press analysis of a 27,849-person spreadsheet of all those imprisoned in Iraq as of late January. The spreadsheet was provided by an Iraqi official on the condition of anonymity.

The real number of detained prisoners is likely to be even higher, as many prisoners are being held by police, military intelligence and Kurdish forces. Those sentenced to die include the sister of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and foreigners who traveled to join ISIS's self-declared caliphate.

Of those detained, 8,861 have been convicted of terror offenses since the start of 2013. AP quoted an Iraqi intelligence official who said it was likely that the vast majority of these were related to ISIS. Another 11,000 people are currently undergoing interrogation or are awaiting trial, another official said.

Human Rights Watch estimated a similar number of detainees and prisoners—20,000—in November 2017, and warned that overzealous use of anti-terror laws would throw those with minimal ISIS connections together with hardened fighters. "Based on all my meetings with senior government officials, I get the sense that no one—perhaps not even the prime minister himself—knows the full number of detainees," said Belkis Wille, Human Rights Watch's senior Iraq researcher.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has called for an acceleration of executions for those convicted. Since 2014, 250 hangings have been carried out, of which 100 took place in 2017, marking a clear effort to fast-track cases. The U.N. has warned that such an approach increases the risk of "gross, irreversible miscarriages of justice."

Death sentences are not only being handed down to those accused of violent acts, but also to those who were members of the group or supported them. According to a Human Rights Watch report, this includes cooks and people who worked in ISIS-run hospitals.

"Iraqi justice is failing to distinguish between the culpability of doctors who protected lives under ISIS rule and those responsible for crimes against humanity," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Responding to an execution of 42 prisoners in September 2017, Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director at Amnesty International said, "The Iraqi authorities have a deplorable track record when it comes to the use of the death penalty. In many cases previously people have been put to death after deeply unfair trials and in some cases after being tortured to 'confess'."

Saad al-Hadithi, a government spokesman, told AP, "The government is intent that every criminal and terrorist receive just punishment."

Iraqi counter terrorism soldier
Iraqi forces were able to push ISIS back towards the Syrian border with the help of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

As Iraqi and Kurdish armed forces fought ISIS back toward the Syrian border with the help of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, they were left with thousands of prisoners. Iraqi authorities spared little time, or sympathy, for those that survived the journey back to Baghdad. Iraqi courts can take as little as 30 minutes to hand down death sentences for defendants.

As the U.S. found during its occupation of Iraq, holding so many terror suspects together at the same time can have unintended consequences. Several members of ISIS's senior leadership met at the Bucca Prison in southern Iraq, where U.S. forces detained militants during the occupation. This gave prisoners a chance to network and spread their ideology. Al-Baghdadi spent almost five years in the camp.

An interior ministry officer overseeing the detention of IS suspects in the area around Mosul told AP that current prisoners have been seen circulating extremist religious teachings and seem to have contact with the outside world, despite the installation of cell phone jammers.

Camp Bucca Iraq US Army
A US Army soldier stands guard during visitation for detained Iraqi men at the Camp Bucca detention center near the Kuwait-Iraq border, on May 20, 2008. DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images

The majority of those being held, and hanged, are Sunni Muslims. The 2003 U.S. invasion unleashed sectarian tensions that had been held in check by Saddam Hussein's iron fist. Shiite Muslims came to control the government of post-Saddam Iraq, and used their power to persecute Sunnis. This created deep resentment in Sunni communities and provided a fertile ground for ISIS recruiters as they swept the north of the country.

Indeed, when Mosul fell in 2014, some residents welcomed ISIS as liberators, though the group's extremism and violence would soon alienate many. By imprisoning and executing thousands of Sunnis, some for only tenuous links to ISIS, the Iraqi government may be repeating the mistakes that allowed the group to flourish in the first place.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the official said he is confident that past errors would not be repeated. "The Americans freed their captives; under Iraq, they will all receive the death penalty," he said.