The entire trial lasted just over half an hour. A grey-haired man was led into the defendant’s booth. He fidgeted as the judge read the charges against him: Swearing allegiance to the Islamic State group and working for the militants as an employee at a water station.
“Not guilty,” the defendant, Abdullah al-Jabouri, told the judge in a session of one of Iraq’s counterterrorism courts this week. He said he had worked for Nineveh province’s water department for more than 20 years and stayed at his post when IS took over in 2014, but he denied ever swearing allegiance to the group.
“All government employees continued in their jobs at the water facility,” the 47-year-old Sunni Arab protested.
“I am asking you to speak only about yourself,” the judge interrupted him. Soon after, the judge and his two associates went into deliberations. A few minutes later they returned with their verdict: Guilty, sentenced to 15 years in prison. Al-Jabouri, his head bowed, was quickly led out and the next accused IS member was ushered in.
Iraq is holding huge numbers of detainees on suspicion of ties to the Islamic State group — around 11,000, according to Iraqi officials — and they are being rushed through counterterrorism courts in trials that raise questions over whether justice is being done. At the same time, families are often left in the dark about where their loved ones are being detained or what their fates are.
The Associated Press last week attended several trials being held in Tel Keif, north of Mosul.
Throughout the system, the trials are usually short, often less than 30 minutes, and most end with guilty verdicts. Convictions are based on confessions that defendants and rights groups say intelligence agents extract by intimidation, torture and abuse. Also used as evidence are reports from anonymous informants, raising the possibility of false accusations made as revenge against rivals. The same defense lawyer works dozens of cases, with little knowledge of the defendants.
Moreover, even limited involvement with IS can bring harsh punishment. Under Iraq’s terror law, only three punishments are permitted — 15 years in prison, life imprisonment or execution by hanging. All verdicts are reviewed by Iraq’s Supreme Court.
“The system is built on an unjust foundation,” said one defense lawyer, Mahfoudh Hamad Ismael. “These suspects’ cases are done and finished the first day they enter a security detention center or an intelligence facility.”
The swift, truncated sessions reflect in part how Iraq’s judicial system has been overwhelmed by the influx of detained IS suspects. Rights groups have long criticized Iraqi courts, saying they struggle to uphold due process. Now they must work through thousands captured in broad sweeps carried out as Iraqi forces retook the northern city of Mosul last year.
Many Iraqis are also thirsty for quick retribution against a group that was notorious for its atrocities.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is running to retain his position in national elections next month, has repeatedly called for death sentences to be sped up. Since 2013, more than 3,000 people convicted on terror charges have been sentenced to death, according to a spreadsheet of Iraqi prison inmates analyzed by the AP. Since 2014, about 250 executions have been carried out. On April 16, the government announced it had executed 11 militants.
The heavy-handed, broad-brush crackdown in the courts threatens to further alienate Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority. Sunnis were the main community living under the Islamic State group’s rule, both its recruiting base and its victims.
Some actively supported the group, joining its ranks as fighters or taking up significant positions in the government it created. But tens of thousands more worked with the group because they had no choice, either forced to cooperate or dependent on government jobs that now fell under the militants’ control.
During the AP’s visit Sunday to the Nineveh Criminal Court in Tel Keif, police officers hustled through the halls carrying armloads of case folders. A row of men awaiting trial crouched on the floor, facing the wall, hands cuffed.
Over the past year, the court has issued more than 815 verdicts on terrorism charges, said court spokesman Abdul Satar Bayraqdar. Of those, 112 were acquitted, 201 were sentenced to death, 150 to life in prison, and 341 to 15 years in prison. He said 1,715 detainees were released without trial. The most recent death sentence was issued April 19, to a man convicted of serving as a judge for the Islamic State group, he said.
In one of the trials, the defendant, Salim Ahmed, stood in court with his hands cuffed behind his back, trembling.
The judge, Younus al-Jumaily, read three documents. One was testimony from “secret informant number 130,” who said that Ahmed “showed sympathy and willingness to join the organization” and that he saw Ahmed carrying an assault rifle and working in the IS traffic police department. The judge also read a Kurdish intelligence report saying Ahmed confessed to joining IS, as well as a report from Iraqi intelligence saying he had sworn allegiance to the group.
“I swear to God, I swear to God, I swear to God, I am innocent,” Ahmed said. “I am a father of daughters. I did not give allegiance to the organization.” He said he worked in construction during IS rule.
He said he was forced to sign the confession without knowing what it said. “I was blindfolded all the time, I was under threat, and they forced me to put my fingerprint on these papers,” he said. He argued the secret informant’s testimony “could be written by anyone who hates me.”
The judges handed down a sentence of 15 years, noting that it was the lightest punishment. “He worked with IS traffic police. He didn’t fight for them,” al-Jumaily said. The entire proceedings took just over 20 minutes.
The trial of al-Jabouri, the water department employee, went similarly. The judge read out an intelligence report, an alleged confession and a report by the mayor of the village where al-Jabouri worked. The mayor said al-Jabouri’s family were known to be IS members and that al-Jabouri worked in the water department under IS. But he said he never saw al-Jabouri carry a gun or wear the militants’ distinct Afghan-style garb.
Al-Jabouri insisted on his innocence. He pointed out that Baghdad continued to pay his salary for months after the IS takeover — as the central government did for all public employees — and that he left the post several months later.
But the judge pressed al-Jabouri, presenting the testimony in the documents again. “What do you say?”
“As you like,” al-Jabouri replied, seemingly resigned that defense was futile.
“Look, it’s not ‘as I like’. What do you say about the accusations?” the judge retorted.
AL-Jabouri said his confession was “taken under fear and threat” and the reports by the mayor and intelligence chief were wrong.
After eight minutes of deliberations, the judges found him guilty and sentenced him to 15 years.
Meanwhile, the families of the thousands of Sunni Arabs in custody are largely in the dark about their loved ones’ fates. Most are never even told where their relatives are being detained and rely on word of mouth to gain information.
Two former detainees interviewed by AP reported harrowing conditions in Iraqi detention — from overcrowding and scabies outbreaks to improvised toilets made from plastic bags and water bottles.
Up the road from the courthouse in Tel Keif, a prison holds some 1,500 people, most waiting for trial.
An official showed The Associated Press five areas of the prison: a courtyard where women and their children were in the sunshine; a densely packed room for minors; two rooms of men, packed in shoulder to shoulder, all seated or crouching on the ground; and room where men who have been sentenced were eating lunch. At least one of the rooms had dark streaks and handprints on the walls that appeared to be excrement.
Outside the courtroom, one Iraqi woman came early, hoping for the chance to see her son, Kahtan, a 28-year-old doctor who was arrested in Mosul in the spring of 2017. She asked to be identified as Umm Kahtan, Arabic for Kahtan’s mother, for fear of reprisals by colleagues and neighbors.
She had been able to retain a lawyer, who had notified her about the trial session. After a sleepless night of prayer and reading the Quran, she arrived at the court at 7:30 a.m., ahead of its opening at 9 a.m. She brought a plastic bag of documents in her purse and two witnesses to attest to her son’s character.
She waited all day in the sun, refusing offers to sit, walking over to guards repeatedly to ask about her son’s case. Finally, at 2 p.m., the end of the work day, her lawyer walked out with a group of colleagues on the way to lunch. The case had been delayed, he told her.
Umm Kahtan rejoiced. At least today he would not be sentenced.
But she had hoped to finally see her son.