Iraq condemns two more French IS members to death

Baghdad (AFP) –


A Baghdad court sentenced two more Frenchmen to death Tuesday for joining the Islamic State jihadist group, raising the number of French IS members on death row in Iraq to six.

Brahim Nejara and Karam El Harchaoui, both in their 30s, were among 12 French citizens transferred to Iraqi authorities in January by a US-backed force fighting the jihadist group in Syria.

The court's decision came despite France reiterating its opposition to capital punishment after a series of similar rulings this week against French citizens handed over to Baghdad.

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

Four other French citizens -- Kevin Gonot, Leonard Lopez, Salim Machou and Mustapha Merzoughi -- have been given death sentences in recent days by a Baghdad court.

Nejara, 33, was involved in IS's foreign fighter operations, according to the French Terrorism Analysis Center.

He allegedly helped foreign fighters join IS in Syria, persuaded one of his brothers to commit an attack in France, and was associated with Foued Mohamed-Aggad, one of the suicide bombers at the Bataclan theatre during the 2015 Paris attacks.

- 'Opposed to death penalty' -

In court, he told the judge "he left from France to Syria in his car in 2014", the year IS declared its self-styled "caliphate" and called on supporters around the world to pledge their allegiance.

"My wife, my daughter and my brother-in-law were with me," added Nejara, wearing a yellow prison uniform.

Harchaoui, 32, left for Syria in 2014 from Belgium. According to Belgian daily HLN, his younger brother and their Belgian wives were also IS members.

Visibly stressed, he told the judge he was "innocent".

"I didn't enter Iraq and I didn't participate in any combat either in Syria or Iraq," he added.

They have 30 days to appeal.

The remaining six French suspects face trial in the coming days under a law that allows capital punishment for anyone joining a "terrorist group" -- even those who did not take up arms.

The trials have been criticised by rights groups, which say they often rely on evidence obtained through torture.

They have also raised the question of whether suspected IS jihadists should be tried in the region or repatriated.

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 could receive death sentences.

On Tuesday Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he had reminded Iraqi President Barham Saleh that "we are opposed to the death penalty".

- 'Executioner' -

Human rights groups have denounced the risk of "torture" and unfair trials in Iraq, ranked the 12th most corrupt country in the world.

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.

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

The country remains in the top five "executioner" nations in the world, an Amnesty International report said in April.

Trials are set Wednesday for 29-year-old Yassin Sakkam, one of the most prominent French members of IS, and Mohammed Berriri, 24, the youngest of the 12 French jihadists held in Iraq.

Fodil Tahar Aouidate, who appeared in court Monday, will return for trial on June 2 to give time for a medical examination ordered after he claimed to have been beaten by interrogators.

Vianney Ouraghi, Bilel Kabaoui and Mourad Delhomme, who also appeared in court Monday, are set to return on June 3.