Yezidi Girl’s Freedom Opens Door to Justice in Iraq

On March 29, Iraqi security forces in Baghdad apprehended an alleged Islamic State (ISIS) member and freed a 15-year-old Yezidi girl he had held captive for years. Her freedom is a relief, but hopefully the case will jumpstart the prosecution of ISIS members for the particular offenses they committed.

So far judges in Iraq have been charging ISIS suspects under the vaguely worded provision 4 of the counterterrorism law, primarily for ISIS membership, support, sympathy, or assistance, but not for specific actions. This includes cases in which defendants have admitted to subjecting Yezidi women to sexual slavery, for which prosecutors have not charged them with rape, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years.

Under international law, the crimes committed against Yezidi women and girls amount to war crimes and may be crimes against humanity or crimes committed as part of a genocide against the Yezidis. But Iraq does not include any of these grave international crimes on its books. Iraqi judges have said that provision 4 is an all-encompassing crime, and that it can include acts such as rape. But they have also justified not bringing additional charges against defendants, including for rape, by saying that victims are not coming forward to file criminal complaints, and the courts lack the capacity to identify victims. This case provides an opportunity for the judicial authorities to pursue a specific criminal case, something the victim, with the appropriate legal, medical and psycho-social support, may want to assist.

So far, the authorities have not acted in her best interests. The day she was freed, footage of her interview by Iraqi intelligence was posted on the Defense Ministry’s Facebook page, disregarding the need to protect her identity. The interviewer badgers her with questions like why she did not escape and notify the security forces of her captor’s ISIS ties. Beyond being deeply disturbing, the video violates Iraqi law on human trafficking, which requires the authorities to preserve the privacy and dignity of trafficking victims.

Hopefully Iraq’s justice system will seize this opportunity to prosecute an alleged ISIS member for specific offenses – and the victim will have the opportunity to see justice done. The countries that supported Iraq’s militarily against ISIS should consider providing technical assistance to the courts, so that Iraqis and all the world can learn the full nature of the brutal crimes committed against this 15-year-old girl, and others like her.