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German court finds former 'IS' member guilty of genocide

30.11.2021

A German court has found a former "Islamic State" member guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity for the 2015 killing of a 5-year-old girl, sentencing him to life in prison.

Frankfurt's Higher Regional Court on Tuesday found 29-year-old Taha A.-J.guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity resulting in death, sentencing him to life in prison.

The Frankfurt case is the first in the world to decide whether a former member of the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) group played a role in the attempted genocide of the Yazidi religious group.

The proceedings had to be briefly suspended as the defendant passed out when the verdict was read aloud in court.

What was the case about?

The prosecution of A. -J. relates to the death of a 5-year-old girl from dehydration in the summer of 2015. A .-J.'s wife Jennifer W. was jailed for 10 years in October after a court heard she had stood idly by as the child was left to die of thirst in the sun.

The prosecutors said Taha A.-J. bought a Yazidi woman and her 5-year-old daughter as slaves at an IS base in Syria in 2015.

The two had been taken prisoner by IS militants in northern Iraq at the beginning of August 2014. They had already been "sold and resold several times as slaves" by the group.

The defendant took the woman and her daughter to his household in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. There, he and his wife forced them to "keep house and to live according to strict Islamic rules."

They also allegedly gave the pair insufficient food and regularly beat them, according to the indictment.

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Prosecutors said that toward the end of 2015, Al-J. chained the girl to the bars of a window in the open sun on a day where it reached 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit). The punishment was said to have been because the girl had wet the bed.

The girl's mother Nora T., who survived captivity, testified at the Frankfurt trial.

Taha A.-J. was arrested in Greece in May 2019 under a German arrest warrant and was transferred to Germany in October. His ongoing trial — the first against a former IS militant to deal with the IS genocide of the Yazidi — has attracted international attention.

What is the impact of the verdict?

Yazidi activist Natia Navrouzov, who works as the legal advocacy director at multinational NGO Yazda, told DW the ruling was "truly historic" for recognizing the Yazidi genocide.

"So we really hope that this case will have a domino effect and that other countries will follow the example of Germany," she said.

"And we also wanted to tell countries that if they don't have the evidence, they can come to organizations such such as Yazda."

The organization was able to identify the surviving victim and put her in touch with the authorities in Germany, Navrouzov said.

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Natia Navrouzov, lawyer and member of the NGO Yazda, speaks to DW

The activist also told DW that her organization was getting requests for information from many different countries, indicating many other investigations were in progress. She pointed to an inquiry against French cement giant LaFarge overpayments given to armed militias in Syria in order to keep one of its factories operational. The company could face charges on being complicit in crimes against humanity.

Why is Taha on trial in Germany?

That the case is being heard by a German court is due to the legal principle of universal jurisdiction. 

This allows German prosecutors and courts to pursue cases even if the alleged crime was not committed in Germany and neither the alleged perpetrator nor victim are German citizens. 

In the case of Taha A.-J., there is another unusual feature: The Iraqi man was not even on German soil when he was arrested. The federal prosecutor had him arrested in Greece and extradited to Germany.

After 'Islamic State,' Yazidi women learn to box
The warm-up

The "Boxing Sisters" program was launched in late 2018 by Lotus Flower, a British NGO in Iraqi Kurdistan. Five days a week Yazidi women and girls gather for a two-hour training session in the Rwanga IDP camp. Many of these women were subjected to physical, emotional and sexual violence while held captive by the "Islamic State" (IS) before arriving at the camp.

After 'Islamic State,' Yazidi women learn to box
Line drills

Boxing was not the first physical activity that Lotus Flower brought to the women and girls in Rwanga camp, but it has been the most popular by far. "We thought that it would be a really good way for the women to be empowered physically as well as internally," says Vian Ahmed, the group's regional director.

After 'Islamic State,' Yazidi women learn to box
Hit me! Faster, harder!

"Many times when I do boxing, I remember the moments I had pain and depression inside myself and I try to get rid of it through boxing," says Husna Said Yusef. She and her family have been at Rwanga camp since IS attacked her village in Sinjar in 2014. When her family learned that IS was approaching, they fled to the mountains and hid for a week, until they were able to make their way to the camp.

After 'Islamic State,' Yazidi women learn to box
Feel the burn

Said Yusef, who is 18, has always loved sports. From a young age she would practice weightlifting with her uncle in their makeshift gym at home, but boxing, she says, is something special. And even though she would like to become a doctor one day, "at the same time, I don't ever want to leave boxing," she says.

After 'Islamic State,' Yazidi women learn to box
Waiting for the fight

In the beginning, not many families in the camp were willing to let their girls attend boxing class, but after several weeks of Lotus Flower staff members going house-to-house explaining the benefits of this physical activity, things began to change. "We didn't believe that it would be something so welcomed in this short period of time," Vian Ahmed says.

After 'Islamic State,' Yazidi women learn to box
In the ring

In April, some of the women in the boxing classes were themselves trained as coaches so that they could go teach boxing to women and girls in other camps in the area. Husna Said Yusef started teaching in her own camp.

After 'Islamic State,' Yazidi women learn to box
The cleanup

When the young women aren't in boxing class, they can attend English language classes or "Storytelling Sisters," a visual storytelling workshop. Some go to high school. The attack on their villages in 2014 by the "Islamic State" group had put a stop to their studies. They now have the chance to resume them.

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For international law expert Alexander Schwarz, the trial demonstrates "Germany's willingness to actually prosecute crimes against international law worldwide and not stop at national borders."

The trial has assumed enormous importance, not only for Nora T., but  — like the trial of Jennifer W.  — for Yazidis in general. The terrorist militia IS branded the Yazidis as "infidels" and "devil worshippers" – and in 2014 systematically hunted them down.

According to United Nations estimates, 7000 Yazidi women and children were enslaved and sold by IS and many remain missing.

For Nora T., all that remains of her family is one son. She lives with him in a secret location in Germany, under a witness protection program, and is supported by human rights lawyer Amal Clooney and represented by German lawyer Natalie von Wistinghausen.

Genocide or accident?

How could the death of the girl be genocide? The answer: If it can be proven that the way Taha A.-J. treated Nora T. and her daughter was part of an IS plan to destroy the Yazidi religious community.

"Genocide is the most serious crime under international law. But at the same time, genocide is the criminal offense which is the hardest to prove," international law expert Schwarz told DW. 

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"That is because you need to prove that the perpetrator had the intent; you have to prove that he was really subjectively concerned with destroying the religious community of the Yazidis."

The need to prove intention has made the case particularly complicated. 

"Of course, there was no explicit explanation in the evidence. We have no diary entries from him, we have no public statements where he talked about destroying the Yazidis," said Schwarz. "The court is faced with the task of deducing from his actions that he was concerned with precisely this destruction." It is difficult to see into the defendant's head and determine his motives. Almost nothing is known about the 29-year-old, not even exactly what role the wiry man played in IS.

The defense has tried to distance their client as much as possible from the militia's organized campaign of destruction against the Yazidis: The girl's mother was merely a domestic helper for him. The girl's death could also have been due to a preexisting condition. Children in Iraq are used to hot temperatures. "The child's death was a terrible accident, which he certainly did not want," said the defense lawyer according to German news agency DPA.

A murder trial with no body

The accident theory is supported by the fact that Taha A.-J. took the Yazidi girl directly to a local hospital. The defense has even cast doubt on whether the child had in fact died.

In May, citing an employee of the Fallujah hospital and a distant uncle of the defendant, the defense told the court that Rania had been cared for in the hospital for a week

Then a man from IS is said to have taken her away. Today she lives in Idlib, in northern Syria, the defense says while admitting evidence of this is difficult to obtain.

This detail demonstrates how difficult and complex it is to conduct such trials far away from the crime scene. 

The federal prosecutors' office has sifted through and collected evidence of crimes against international law by IS for years in what are known as structural investigations. 

rc/wmr (AFP, AP)

This piece was written with additional reporting from Matthias von Hein