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Iraq condemns fourth French IS member to death

Thousands of people are being held for questioning [Getty]

Date of publication: 27 May, 2019

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Mustapha Merzoughi, 37, was sentenced to hanging just a day after three other French citizens were given the death penalty.

An Iraqi court on Monday condemned a fourth French citizen to death for joining the Islamic State group, a day after handing capital punishments to three other Frenchmen.

Mustapha Merzoughi, 37, was sentenced to death by hanging, according to an AFP journalist at the court.

"The evidence and the confession show that you joined the Islamic State group, that you worked in its military branch," the judge told Merzoughi before handing down his sentence.

In recent months Iraq has taken custody of thousands of suspected jihadis including foreigners captured in neighbouring Syria by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) during the battle to destroy the IS "caliphate".

The Iraqi judiciary said earlier in May that it had tried and sentenced more than 500 suspected foreign members of IS since the start of 2018.

"I'm not guilty of crimes and killings. I'm guilty of going (to Syria)," Merzoughi, wearing a yellow prison uniform, told the judge.

"I ask for forgiveness from the people of Iraq, Syria, France and the families of the victims."

Merzoughi told investigators he had served in the French army from 2000 to 2010, including a tour in Afghanistan in 2009.

In France, he lived in the southwestern city of Toulouse, the hometown of jihadist brothers Fabien and Jean-Michel Clain who claimed the deadly 2015 attacks in Paris and were killed fighting in Syria.

Passing through Belgium and then Morocco, the French citizen of Tunisian origin underwent "religious and military training in Aleppo", in northern Syria.

Fellow French jihadi Fodhil Tahar Aouidate also appeared before the court on Monday, but his trial was postponed until 2 June to allow for a medical examination after he alleged he had been beaten in custody.

Aouidate, 32, made a first trip to Syria in 2013 and returned in 2014 to join IS, according to the French judiciary.

After 130 people were killed in IS' 2015 Paris attacks, Aouidate appeared in a video saying it was his "great pleasure and joy to see these unbelievers suffer as we suffer here."

Their trial came a day after an Iraqi court sentenced three French citizens to death for joining IS, making them the first French jihadis to be handed capital punishment.

Captured in Syria by the SDF, Kevin Gonot, Leonard Lopez and Salim Machou were transferred tIraq for trial. They have 30 days to appeal.

On Monday, the French government said it would take "the necessary steps" to try to prevent Iraq from carrying out the death penalty against the three French citizens convicted of fighting alongside the Islamic State group.

"France is opposed in principle to the death penalty at all times and in all places," the foreign ministry said in a statement on Monday, just a day after the three IS members were sentenced.

It said the detained men were receiving consular assistance to ensure they had legal representation ahead of an expected appeal of the ruling, which they can lodge within 30 days.

It added, however, that France "respects the sovereignty of Iraq's institutions".

France has long insisted that its adult citizens captured in Iraq or Syria must face trial locally, refusing to repatriate them despite the risk they face capital punishment for waging their war in the region.

They were among 13 French nationals caught in battle-scarred eastern Syria and handed to Iraqi authorities in February on suspicion of being members of IS' feared contingent of foreign fighters.

Iraqi courts have condemned many to life in prison and others to death, though no foreign IS members have yet been executed.

Iraq's government has declined to provide figures on detention centres or prisoners, including how many are facing terrorism-related charges, although some studies estimate 20,000 are being held for purported IS links.

Iraq
 declared victory over IS in late 2017 and began trying foreigners accused of joining the militant group the following year. 

Government sources have told AFP that Baghdad would be willing to try all foreigners currently held in Kurdish detention in northeast Syria for a price. 

Around a thousand suspected foreign IS fighters are in detention in northeast Syria, in addition to around 9,000 foreign women and children in camps there.

Rights groups including Human Rights Watch have criticised the trials, which they say often rely on circumstantial evidence or confessions obtained under torture.

Iraq has also already tried thousands of its own nationals arrested on home soil for joining IS, including women.

It has begun trial proceedings for nearly 900 Iraqis repatriated from Syria and sentenced four to death last month under its counter-terrorism law. 

The country remains in the top five "executioner" nations in the world, according to an Amnesty International report released last month.

The number of death sentences issued by Iraqi courts more than quadrupled from 65 in 2017 to at least 271 last year.

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