BY MARGHERITA CAPACCI, IN THE HAGUE
The Netherlands is the second country to prosecute Islamic State (ISIS) members for their crimes against Yazidis before a national court, under the principle of universal jurisdiction. Germany took action first, with already two convictions for genocide against this community living in the Sinjar region of northern Iraq, targeted by ISIS in 2014.
Many had to flee, while men were killed and many women were forced into slavery and suffered sexual and gender-based crimes. This has been qualified as a genocide by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as of 2015. In 2022, around 200,000 Yazidis were still living in and outside displaced camps across the Kurdistan region of Iraq, according to the UN. And as more hate speech occurred again in early May, Yazidis activists demand an accountability mechanism and guarantees of non-repetition.
Hasna Aarab first appeared before a court in Rotterdam on February 14. She is accused of co-perpetrating slavery as a crime against humanity against a Yazidi woman, referred to as Z. for security reasons. According to the prosecution, the defendant forced the woman to “perform cleaning and domestic work, prepare food and care for her son for many hours a day, as a forced labour”. The crime was allegedly committed in 2015 in the city of Raqqa, central Syria. Still in the pre-trial phase, the case is handled in Rotterdam by the District Court of The Hague, that is dealing with international crimes. A second hearing was held on April 25 and the next one is scheduled for June 27.
Aarab is one of 12 women who were repatriated from camps located in the Kurdish autonomous area in northern Syria, together with their 28 children in November 2022. The women were all arrested as they entered the Netherlands. Another woman is accused of an international crime, namely pillaging as a war crime. All of them are now facing charges for membership of a terrorist organisation. The slavery charges for Aarab are based on the statements of three Yazidi witnesses, including Z. The prosecution explained that these statements were initially made to the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Islamic State (UNITAD).
According to the prosecution, Aarab traveled to Syria from the Netherlands with her 4 year old son in 2015 to marry a Moroccan national IS fighter. Between May 1 and August 1, 2015, she stayed at her husband’s acquaintance’s house in Raqqa, the capital of the self-proclaimed “Islamic caliphate” – one of the first major localities to fall into the hands of ISIS in 2014. “This case must be viewed in the context of the mass murder, the genocide, committed by ISIS against the Yazidi community,” said the prosecutor Mirjam Blom during the first hearing. She argued that Aarab was aware of the widespread and systematic attack targeting the Yazidis and she knew that Z. was a Yazidi.
Aarab’s defense lawyers André Seebregts and Mirjam Levy firstly said that their client denies keeping Z. as a slave and invoked her right to remain silent. She did not attend the second hearing on April 25, but the defense lawyer said she acknowledged being in the same house as Z. while denying commanding her. The lawyer added that the accused was young and naive and was placed in the house by her husband who then left. The defense did not wish to make more comments at this stage.
The merit of the case will probably be heard in winter, explains Brechtje van de Moosdijk, spokesperson of the prosecutor’s office. The investigation is ongoing, she says, and time may stretch if defense lawyers demand to hear witnesses that need to be transferred from foreign countries. Every three months a new hearing is held to give the lawyers an opportunity to present investigative submissions. To date, the defense was allowed by the court to hear Z. as a witness. It was also allowed to submit written questions to UNITAD.
“It means a lot”, for the Yazidi community
“We are happy that finally something is moving, it means a lot” for the Yazidi community, says Wahhab Hassoo, an activist and co-founder of the NGO NL Helpt Yezidis, who has been following the preliminary hearings from up-close. “I was very emotional during the first one, the judge talked about the suffering of the Yazidis,” he says.
Hassoo is hoping for more. “We have been demanding for a more active attitude from Western governments and the government in the Netherlands,” which according to him has started mobilising only when foreign fighters and their relatives started to be repatriated and could pose a risk to the country’s national security. “We want compensations and we want the Yazidis who are coming to the Netherlands as refugees to get asylum,” he adds.
“We need this government to take responsibility now because Dutch nationals contributed to the genocide against us,” Hassoo argues. “It is important to see our government take legal action against Dutch nationals – not only for joining ISIS, but for the atrocities they committed as ISIS members against innocent individuals like Yazidis,” says in a written note Pari Ibrahim, executive director of the Netherlands-based NGO Free Yezidi Foundation.
“There are thousands of ISIS members who committed those crimes and thousands of victims and you just have two countries in Europe who on their own initiative try to move this justice process forward with a handful of cases,” says Natia Navrouzov, legal advocacy director of the Yazidi NGO Yazda. “This is really not enough.”
The Netherlands has officially recognised the Yazidi genocide in July 2021. Several other countries have done the same but so far only Dutch and German prosecutors have taken few concrete steps.
PLEAS FOR AN INTERNATIONAL COURT AND ACCOUNTABILITY IN IRAQ
Beyond universal jurisdiction trials, Yazidi activists believe that both Iraqi national trials and international mechanisms are needed to capture the full scale of what they suffered.
Both Wahhab Hassoo, of the NGO NL Helpt Yezidis, and Pari Ibrahim, from the Free Yezidi Foundation say that the Yazidi genocide should be handled in an international mechanism “where our community and the whole world can benefit from seeing the truth of the crimes” committed by ISIS, says Pari Ibrahim.
“We want an international tribunal because ISIS is an international problem and there were so many foreigners who joined ISIS,” says Natia Navrouzov from Yazda, a Yazidi organization based in the United States. But setting up an international tribunal also takes a long time and significant financial resources, and Navrouzov says that this would also only work “temporarily”.
Meanwhile, hate speech against Yazidis in Iraq continues. In this context, Navrouzov believes that an accountability mechanism within the Iraqi national justice system would be key to long-term justice as it could also tackle possible future crimes. But “survivors have said many times that they would not trust a purely national process because of the huge risk that it’s going to be politicised” and “an accountability mechanism in Iraq would have to have international involvement,”, she clarifies.
At the moment Iraq has not incorporated genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity into its domestic legislation. ISIS members are only prosecuted for terrorism crimes under Iraqi law. Understanding the reasons behind the genocide “is also a function of trials in Iraq,” says Navrouzov, as Yazidis have in fact been persecuted since the Middle Ages.