Sat, May 12, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Syria’s Kurds put IS on trial
with focus on reconciliation

While Syrian Kurds are eager to bring justice to bear on the militant group’s members, their emphasis is on leniency and reconciliation

By Sarah El Deeb  /  AP, QAMISHLI, Syria

Illustration: Tania Chou

The “Defense of the People” Court is an almost intimate place. Three judges, two men and a woman sat behind a large desk. The defendant, a former Islamic State (IS) group fighter in Syria, faced them in a chair only a meter away, close enough for a conversation. A space heater in the center and mustard-colored couch and armchairs made the room even homier.

The judges are Kurds, belonging to the US-backed self-rule authority that the community has set up over much of the north and east of Syria. After defeating the IS in battle, Syria’s Kurds are now eager to show they can bring justice against the group’s members. The emphasis is on leniency and reconciliation in marked contrast to Iraq, where harsh and swift verdicts on IS suspects seem geared to vengeance.

Under questioning, the 19-year-old Syrian Arab his hair bushy and beard scraggly from months in detention described how he had joined the IS for nine months, fighting government forces. He was wounded, eventually deserted and went into hiding. Then in November, when the IS was collapsing, he turned himself in to Kurdish authorities.

“By God, I regret it,” he said of joining the IS.

He pleaded to the judges: “I want you to help me. I am married and my mother is also at home. I would really like to return to them.”

“You did well,” the judge replied. “It is in your favor that you were a minor when you enrolled and that you handed yourself in. Good behavior in jail will be even more beneficial.”

The sentence: Two years and nine months in prison, reduced to just nine months because he was a minor and surrendered.

Syrian Kurdish authorities have built a justice system from scratch, without any recognition from the Syrian government or the outside world, and are trying hundreds of Syrians accused of joining the IS. The Kurds have multiple aims in their more lenient approach. They want to extend bridges to eastern Syria’s majority population of Arabs, who deeply distrust their new Kurdish rulers.

They also want to highlight their competence in government and win international legitimacy. So the Kurds abolished the death sentence and offered reduced sentences to IS members who hand themselves in. The harshest sentence is life in prison, which is actually a 20-year sentence. They organized reconciliation and mediation efforts with major Arab tribes and offered more than 80 IS fighters amnesty last year to foster good tribal relations and convince others to turn themselves in.

In contrast, Iraqi courts have sentenced hundreds of IS suspects to death in swift trials, and even tangential links to the militant group are punished by sentenced of 15 years or life.

The Kurds renamed the “terrorism” courts, saying that term was too negative. Instead, the tribunals trying IS suspects are called the Defense of the People Courts. Kurdish officials call their prisons “academies,” saying the emphasis is on re-education. The changes are in line with the group’s “leftist-libertarian” ideology that claims to act as a direct democracy.

However, there are also major gaps. There are no defense lawyers; officials say that is because they fear security breaches amid a string of bombings and assassinations against officials blamed on IS cells. Judges keep their identities secret for fear of being targeted. So far, it is impossible to appeal verdicts, though the Kurds say they plan to create appeal tribunals.

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