An Iraqi court is currently trying Iraqis accused of being members of Islamic State (IS) and examining claims for damages from those whose property was seized or destroyed by IS. However, the United Court of Nineveh, which relocated during the siege of Mosul to Qaraqosh (a predominantly Christian town, until its inhabitants fled), has only twelve judges and thousands of cases to try. According to the journal Foreign Affairs almost all suspects are charged with terrorism even though some have admitted to murder, enslavement, rape and involvement in genocide, such as the massacre of up to 5,000 Yazidis in Sinjar. The actual sentencing is carried out by judges in Baghdad who can issue sentences of between 15 years and life imprisonment or the death penalty. However, those who joined IS but did not actually take part in fighting or killing can be ordered to join militia groups fighting Islamic State.
In some respects the existence of the court is good news. However, there are also causes for concern. Firstly, the court is clearly too small and struggling to cope and will continue to do so. This week the Daily Telegraph reported that 5,000 IS suspects were being held in makeshift jails around Mosul and arrest warrants have been issued for 6,500 more. Government funding is so short that judges have to pay for their own court room furniture and a maximum of only $1,000 can be spent investigating any individual suspect. When Western governments sometimes struggle to know where to spend their aid budget, this is a situation that is crying out for assistance.
Secondly, it is welcome that IS members are being tried by a court of law, no matter how imperfect that process may be. However, it is important that trials take place not just for terrorism but also for crimes against humanity and genocide. The International Criminal Court will only try people for such offences if the perpetrators cannot be prosecuted in the countries where the crimes occurred. So, merely prosecuting those involved in genocide for terrorism could actually prevent future genocide trials occurring and the important deterrent signal those send to future despots.
Thirdly, sentencing former IS members to join forces fighting IS means that Iraqi security forces will include those who are deeply committed to jihadi ideology. This is profoundly disturbing; Christians and other minorities must be able to have confidence is the Iraqi security forces. Without this it is likely that Christianity will simply cease to exist in Iraq within a short space of time.