On 3 August 2014, the Islamic State (IS) group, launched an aggressive and coordinated attack on several villages in the north of Iraq. By 15 August, all the women under 40 had been subject to sexual slavery and boys as young as nine were forced onto the battlefield or used for suicide operations.
The plight of the Yazidi, Kaki, Shakak and Turkmen Shia peoples in Sinjar and elsewhere across the north of Iraq continued for over three years until the second week of December 2017 when Iraq announced victory over IS. Horrifying accounts of the brutality that had taken place then came into the open.
In 2018, the UN set up its Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Daesh, or IS, (UNITAD). Established under a UN Security Council Resolution that was adopted upon the request of Iraq, for almost five years UNITAD teams have been working on the ground in Iraq to collect evidence and build cases against IS militants.
According to Christian Ritscher, special adviser to UN secretary-general and head of UNITAD, these crimes could be qualified as genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
The first conviction based on the work of UNITAD has sent a IS militant and his spouse to jail for their crimes. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly on the eighth anniversary of the IS takeover of villages in the north of Iraq, Ritscher said there was still a lot of work to be done in order to document IS crimes and to “hold those responsible accountable.”
“Most of the work [UNITAD] is doing is [not] visible [because] this is not a political mission, and doing investigative work [on the ground] normally [excludes being] public about the details of the work to avoid drawing the attention of those being investigated. But a lot of work is being done,” Ritscher said.
He added that there was a need for what could be a few or many more years for the completion of the work of the mission, of which he is the second head.
Ritscher said that during the past four years the work of UNITAD has involved the communities and the surviving victims or family members of victims who suffered from the crimes of IS. It has also included the relevant political leaderships. In parallel, UNITAD’s economic crimes unit has been working to trace the financial system used by IS.
He declined to say whether the evidence his investigators have been gathering could point the finger towards prominent regional or international individuals involved in the financing of IS. He said there was enough evidence of a complex financial system behind the group with a lot of dealings.
IS, Ritscher said, “named itself a state, and it acted as a state. We could be talking about some known people… But we are in the middle of our investigations, and we are looking at the structure itself,” he added.
According to Ritscher, UNITAD’s work has been making progress despite the inevitable challenges that come with a volatile political situation including the demonstrations in Iraq of the past few weeks. He is hoping that the work of his mission will eventually help to bring stability to Iraq and allow for reconciliation.
“But reconciliation is only possible with productive justice… and this is only possible by holding the perpetrators accountable and having evidence trials,” he said.
He said that the November 2021 indictment of a IS perpetrator and his wife had helped to pacify the pain of the victims of “all the heinous crimes” that IS had committed. “There was a feeling that this [crime] was acknowledged for what it was and that it was not just perceived as a narrative [of the victims],” he said.
On 30 November, a court in Frankfurt, Germany, handed down a life sentence to a former IS fighter for genocide against the Yazidi minority in Iraq – the first genocide conviction of a IS fighter anywhere in the world.
Germany had begun its first genocide trial involving a IS fighter in October 2019, after the accused, Iraqi national Taha Al-Jumaili, had been extradited from Greece to Germany. The 27-year-old man stood accused of the crime of genocide and crimes against humanity. He is the husband of Jennifer Wenisch, a German citizen, who was also on trial before the Higher Regional Court of Munich for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against members of the Yazidi community in Iraq.
German courts have jurisdiction over the crime of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity under the principle of universal jurisdiction that allows for the trial of non-German citizens for crimes that were neither inflicted on German citizens nor committed on German territory.
Ritscher could not promise that further trials much less indictments are coming up. But he did promise that more evidence for more cases was being diligently compiled and formatted in a court-compatible way. He also promised that the work of the past eight years would yield fruit as UNITAD continues its “unique mandate” that is essential for Iraqi reconciliation.
He said it was hard to think of another format to investigate IS crimes in the north of Iraq and to hold those responsible accountable through courts of law. Unlike other situations involving war and fighting, the case of IS is one of a terrorist group that knows no limits and attacked Iraqi society itself.”
It was in September 2021 that Ritscher, a former public prosecutor at the German Federal Court with more than 30 years of experience in international and domestic criminal prosecutions, started his mission as the second head of UNITAD, following Karim Asad Ahmad Khan.
In December last year, Ritscher joined the families of Yazidi victims as they held a funeral to rebury the remains of individuals assembled in 41 coffins all of whom had been brutally killed by IS and previously buried in a mass graves.
Portraits of the victims, both men and women, were placed on each coffin before it was lowered into the ground, and the Iraqi flag was laid on top of the coffins as drums rolled.
For Ritscher, this was an incredibly moving moment and also a very motivating one. He recalled that he was standing listening to a statement by Farida Khalaf, a Yazidi woman who was abducted by IS in 2014 and sold into slavery before she escaped the IS camp.
“She was saying that they would never forget what had happened,” Ritscher said. He added that while he knows that such atrocities are hard to forget, painful memories could still be remedied by bringing the perpetrators to justice.
Ritscher said that it is due to the brave testimonies of the survivors of the Daesh heinous crimes that the world got to know really what happened in the horrible days between 3 and 15 August 2014 against the Yazidis and other religious groups.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.