BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi officials appeared cautious on Thursday after holding talks with European powers this week aimed at accelerating efforts to create a judicial framework that would enable jihadists being held in Syria to face trial in Iraq.
European states have been trying to fast-track a plan to move thousands of foreign Islamic State militants out of Syrian prison camps and into Iraq, after the Turkish offensive in northern Syria raised the risk of jihadists escaping or returning home, diplomats and officials have told Reuters.
Legal experts from Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden have been in Baghdad this week for technical talks, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was in Iraq on Thursday to discuss the issue with the Iraqi government and Kurdish leaders.
Speaking at a news conference with Le Drian, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Hakim said his government’s priority was to bring back Iraqi fighters and their families “if possible”.
“With regard (to) foreign fighters … these countries must take necessary and appropriate measures to try these people,” he said, without elaborating.
Europeans comprise a fifth of around 10,000 Islamic State fighters held captive in Syria by Kurdish militias which are under heavy attack by Turkish forces. If the militias redeploy prison guards to the front line, there is a risk of jail-breaks.
Europe does not want to try its Islamic State nationals at home, fearing a public backlash, difficulties in collating evidence against them, and risks of renewed attacks from militants on European soil.
European nations have been working on a framework since June and holding talks with the Iraqi government, which is seeking millions of dollars in financial compensation for taking European fighters.
The talks have made slow progress, partly due to European concerns over the fairness of Iraqi justice and the use of the death penalty there.
A senior Iraqi government official said Baghdad had told the Europeans this week that it preferred to take only Iraqis back and that it could not take people who had not committed crimes in Iraq.
Legal experts have said that given Islamic State controlled territory across Iraq and Syria, that could open the door for them to face justice in Iraq.
The Iraqi source said European countries had proposed financial aid for Iraq, but the issue was not just financial but also had legal implications.
About 300 French adults, including 60 fighters, are being held in Syria. Le Drian said talks with Baghdad were ongoing.
“We discussed how to put into action the adapted jurisdictional mechanism to be done in the best way and the work is in progress,” he said.
There is precedent for prisoners transferred from Syria to be tried in Iraq. At least 30 men of various nationalities — including French, Belgian and Australian — have been covertly transferred by U.S. forces to Iraqi custody, Iraqi sources and court documents show. At least three were sentenced to death, while five others were given life sentences.
Human rights groups have said inconsistencies in the judicial process and flawed trials have led to unfair convictions in Iraq.
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed Rasheed in Baghdad and John Irish in Paris; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Catherine Evans)