Baghdad – Over three days in late May, the presiding judge of the counterterrorism court in Baghdad heard an average of 12-13 cases a day and sentenced to death at least 10 defendants accused of being ISIS group members.
Death sentences are being issued at a dizzying rate in Iraq’s rush to prosecute and punish suspected ISIS members: more than 3,000 over the past few years, with new ones added every day.
Yet, few witness these proceedings. Cameras are strictly forbidden inside. The trials are not broadcast, and even if a member of the public wished to attend, the seating is limited and usually the room is full to capacity.
The Associated Press commissioned Iraqi artist Saif Jawadi to render drawings of the scene in the courtroom of the presiding judge, Suhail Abdullah Sahar.
By design, this courtroom resembles courts in the West: a raised bench for the chief judge, flanked by two assistant judges. They wear black robes with a white trim. Beneath the judge, his clerk works on a desktop computer. To his right is the state prosecutor’s dais; to his left, the defense attorney’s dais.
At the center of the room, a wooden cage — shoulder height for men, but some women defendants cannot see over the top rail — contains the defendant in handcuffs.
The defense attorney’s robe has a green trim. His government counterpart wears a robe with a red trim, completing the three colors of the Iraqi flag.
Few defendants have retained lawyers, either because they cannot afford them or because they have had little or no contact with their families between their arrest and their court appearance.
Many families interviewed by the AP simply do not know where their relatives are held, and even when they do, they do not have the means to travel to Baghdad or other locations where they have been transferred. One mother borrowed $5,000 to retain a lawyer, only to have her son’s case delayed indefinitely.
So most often, the judges appoint a defense lawyer on the spot, selecting from one of the two normally present in the court. The lawyers have no knowledge of their client’s case when they’re named. The government of Iraq pays them the equivalent of about $30 per case.
Witnesses are not present for every trial. But on one of the days the AP attended, a woman swore on the Quran, Islam’s holy book, before testifying on behalf of an accused militant.
Of the trials attended by the AP, all but one ended in guilty verdicts. Life sentences were common and 15-year sentences were granted for “mitigating circumstances.” Despite the sentences, most defendants remained stone-faced as they were shuffled out after the proceeding’s conclusion.
But one man erupted as the judge read out the names of witnesses who accused him of joining IS, issuing religious rulings for the group and delivering a car bomb used in an attack.
“Heaven and Earth as my witness, I don’t know these people,” Ahmed Habib cried out. He said he had been beaten by Kurdish troops who arrested him. “Your honor, where is the accountability? Why the torture? This is a democratic country, so why I am I not allowed to speak freely?”
He was sentenced to death.