By Anthony Deutsch
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – A Dutch-born alleged Islamic State militant went on trial in the Netherlands on Monday for war crimes committed in Iraq and Syria, after posing with a crucified body and sharing images of dead victims online.
It is the first trial in the Netherlands dealing with war crimes committed by an alleged Islamic State militant.
There is no international tribunal to prosecute the widespread atrocities committed during Syria’s civil war, which began in 2011, but several European countries have put citizens who joined militant groups in the Middle East on trial.
According to the European police agency Europol, some 5,000 Europeans went to fight in Syria and Iraq, of whom some 1,500 have returned. Roughly 300 Dutch men and women joined the war in Iraq and Syria, prosecutors said.
Oussama Achraf Akhlafa, 24, is charged with joining IS militants in Mosul in Iraq, and Raqqa in Syria, between 2014 and 2016.
He is being tried under so-called universal jurisdiction, which enables war crimes to be prosecuted regardless of where they were committed.
Akhlafa is charged with violating the personal dignity of war victims, which is protected under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, as well as membership of a terrorist organisation. Prosecutors demanded a prison sentence of seven years, eight months.
Prosecutors said Akhlafa had posed next to the crucified body of a man on a wooden cross and distributed pictures of an IS militant holding the head of a dead Kurdish fighter, and of a dead woman with the foot of someone standing on her body.
A list of fighters on Islamic State’s payroll recovered in Mosul names Akhlafa as one of 18 Dutch nationals, said prosecutor Nicole Vogelenzang.
“According to the list, Akhlafa was a fighter in Mosul for three months in the IS sniper brigade,” she said. The personal information is so “detailed that it could not be about anyone other than Akhlafa”.
“He was there and knew Islamic State was a terrorist group,” she said. “He … even volunteered to carry out suicide attacks.”
In a statement, Akhlafa said he had joined IS after becoming homeless in the Netherlands, but had never hurt anyone.
“If I didn’t get in the photo I would be seen as disloyal” by IS, he told the court. “I posed in the photo. I take all responsibility for that. I am sorry and it was not my intent to humiliate this man.”
“I understand it creates an image, but madame, I didn’t kill anyone … IS wouldn’t even give me a weapon.”
The judge read out witness testimony and quotes from online chats with the defendant in which he bragged about killings and said he was a sniper. “Sniping is the most fun thing there is, but it is highly dangerous,” the judge quoted him as writing.
The defendant said his remark had been intended to impress women.
A second defendant, Dutch-born 24-year-old Reda Nidalha, also went on trial on Monday, accused of membership of a terrorist organisation and recruiting radical jihadists via Facebook.
Nidalha, who sat in a black t-shirt with a shaved head and thick beard, was questioned for hours at the opening of hearings on Monday.
He denied allegations of recruiting, saying he had been joking when he chatted on Facebook about friends joining him in Raqqa, the self-declared capital of Islamic State’s “caliphate”.
“In 2014, I went to Syria to help people, women and children,” he told a panel of judges. “I didn’t join to fight. I provided basic medical assistance.”
Nidalha denied accusations of trying to recruit four people for Islamic State, saying the Facebook chats were “not serious”.
(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch, Editing by William Maclean and Kevin Liffey)