Forty-five lawyers, including some of the most prestigious names of the French bar, protested this week against what they call “state cynicism” in allowing French jihadists to be tried and sentenced to death in Baghdad.
Between May 26th and June 3rd the Iraqi government tried 11 French jihadists for belonging to Islamic State, also known as Isis. All were sentenced to death by hanging.
Since François Mitterrand abolished capital punishment in 1981, France has campaigned for an end to the practice worldwide. As the lawyers point out, article 66-1 of the French constitution forbids the death penalty and allows "no exception, not even in matters of terrorism".
The European Convention on Human Rights also forbids capital punishment in all circumstances.
“It would be an immense dishonour to our country to make these death sentences possible,” the signatories write.
The jihadists were captured by Kurdish forces in Syria and transferred to Baghdad. Paris originally planned to repatriate them for trial in France. But polls showed that public opinion was massively opposed to it, and President Emmanuel Macron changed his mind.
France has been accused of "subcontracting" the fate of French jihadists to the Syrian Kurdish forces it trained, and to Iraq. During a visit to Paris last February, Iraqi president Barham Saleh announced that French jihadists expelled by the Kurds would be tried in Iraq.
The General Secretariat for Defence and National Security (SGDSN) recommended that the transfer take place “without the visible intervention of France” and that “the hand of our country” not appear, according to the investigative website Medipart.
No French citizen can be extradited to a country where he risks capital punishment. “Not without hypocrisy, France has chosen to fall back on Iraq, entrusting the penal management of its citizens to Baghdad, rather than take on the security risks of their repatriation,” said Le Monde’s editorial.
The lawyers accuse the government of hypocrisy, recalling campaigns for the liberation of French citizens convicted of drug trafficking in Indonesia. A French woman who was allegedly wrongly imprisoned in Mexico was received at the Élysée after the government obtained her freedom.
In recent days, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye said the French jihadists benefit from consular assistance and promised France would seek to have their sentences commuted to life in prison.
Ms Ndiaye said the jihadists were given “fair” trials, but that was disputed by French lawyers who said some hearings lasted less than 10 minutes and that court-appointed Iraqi defence lawyers had no access to the file and could not meet the accused beforehand.
The convicted jihadists range in age from 24 to 41. Léonard Lopez and Kévin Gonot are converts to Islam. Salim Machou belonged to Isis's Tariq ibn Ziyad brigade, which was led by Abdelilah Himich, a former soldier in the French foreign legion, according to the Center for the Analysis of Terrorism (CAT) in Paris.
Mustapha Merzoughi served with the French army in Afghanistan. Mourad Delhomme, who was born in Algeria, was a judge in Islamic State's tribunal, the CAT said. The tribunal enforced punishments according to Islamic law, including amputations, and regularly carried out summary executions.
The Iraqi court cited videos and Islamic State archives as evidence. Brahim Nejara glorified the November 13th, 2015, Bataclan attacks, which killed 130 people, in a video titled "Paris has fallen".
Evoking the same massacre, Fodil Tahar Aouidate threatened France with further attacks. "Allah gave us the great pleasure and happiness of seeing these infidels suffer as we suffer here . . . Know that just as you continue to strike Muslim land, we will continue to strike you, in the heart of your capital."
Aouidate was reportedly close to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who co-ordinated the November 13th attacks.
France goes to great lengths to protect its citizens. It negotiated the release of hostages in Syria, when the US and UK allowed theirs to be decapitated. But officials imply that jihadists do not enjoy the same rights.
“They are terrorists who attacked us and who have sown death in Iraq,” foreign minister Le Drian said.
Another 450 French citizens remain in the hands of Syrian Kurds. Since early 2018, Iraq has condemned 500 foreigners to death, but none have yet been executed.