Iraqi court sentences French woman to life for joining IS group
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Mélina Boughedir left her home in France with her four children in 2015 to follow her husband to Iraq, where he joined the Islamic State (IS) group. An Iraqi court sentenced her to life in prison on Sunday for belonging to the terrorist organisation.
Boughedir, 27, was captured with her children by Iraqi forces in Mosul in July 2017, at the end of a protracted battle to retake the city from the IS group.
She was initially condemned to seven months in prison by a court in Baghdad in February for entering the country illegally and was to be deported to France at the end of her sentence.
But upon examining her case, an appeals court ordered that she be retried, arguing that Boughedir was aware of her husband’s plans to join the IS group and had “knowingly” followed him to Iraq, therefore violating the country’s anti-terrorism law, under which acts of terrorism are punishable by death.
Boughedir has denied the charges, testifying on Sunday that she travelled to Iraq under false pretenses. She appeared in court wearing a dress and a black veil, clutching her youngest daughter in her arms. Her three older children have been repatriated to France.
“I am innocent,” she told the judge in French, with the aid of a translator. “My husband tricked me and then he threatened to leave with the children”.
Boughedir said she was opposed to the IS group’s ideology and condemned the actions of her husband, who is also a French citizen. She added that she did not know his whereabouts, testifying she hadn’t heard from him since he left one day to get water.
Despite her claims of innocence the court ruled against Boughedir, finding she was fully aware of her husband’s intentions.
“The evidence gathered is enough to sentence the criminal to life,” it ruled.
Although she was spared the death penalty, the decision comes as a blow to Boughedir and her defence team, who have accused the French government of meddling in the case.
“We’ve escaped the death penalty, and obviously that was our greatest fear. But this is still a very heavy sentence,” Vincent Brengarth, one of Boughedir’s lawyers, told FRANCE 24 from Baghdad. “This decision was taken at the end of a trial that did not respect the principles of a fair hearing."
“We have the feeling that the verdict had already been decided upon, and indeed it was delivered immediately,” he added.
In a letter addressed to French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Saturday, Boughedir's lawyers claimed that the retrial was the direct result of diplomatic “pressure”.
“It’s about unacceptable pressure on the Iraqi justice system, and demonstrates, if need be, your desire, at any cost and at the sacrifice of fundamental principles, that our client does not return to France,” wrote Brengarth and his co-counsel, William Bourdon and Martin Pradel.
“Under these circumstances, no one will doubt the link between you and the unacceptable interference you have been responsible for if a heavy sentence is declared tomorrow,” they added.
Earlier in the week, Le Drian called on Iraq to avoid giving Boughedir the death penalty, but reiterated past comments that she should stand trial in Iraq, describing her as “an [IS group] terrorist”.
“When you go to Mosul in 2016, it’s to go fight, and she will be judged where she acted. It’s common sense,” Le Drian said on Thursday.
Boughedir’s lawyers have argued that she should face justice at home, citing an international arrest warrant issued after a court in Paris opened a preliminary investigation into her on August 2, 2016.
Boughedir is the second French citizen condemned to life in prison in Iraq for belonging to the IS group this year. In April, a court sentenced 27-year-old Djamila Boutoutaou for the same crime. She also claimed to have been tricked by her husband.
They are just two of the dozens of French nationals – including several minors – believed to be held in Iraq and neighbouring Syria on suspicion of having joined the IS group.
Thousands of foreign fighters from across the world flocked to join the terrorist organisation after it seized large swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014. Multiple offensives have since reduced their "caliphate" to a sliver of desert territory in the east of war-torn Syria.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)