In Syria, Kurdish Anti-Terrorism Courts Take On ISIS Cases Kurdish Syrian authorities have tried 7,000 ISIS suspects in a justice system that bans torture and the death penalty. Some of the judges are women, which comes as a shock to ISIS fighters on trial.
NPR logo

'Revenge Is For The Weak': Kurdish Courts In Northeastern Syria Take On ISIS Cases

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/727511632/728053517" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Revenge Is For The Weak': Kurdish Courts In Northeastern Syria Take On ISIS Cases

'Revenge Is For The Weak': Kurdish Courts In Northeastern Syria Take On ISIS Cases

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/727511632/728053517" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now to a court in Syria, where ISIS suspects are being judged. Thousands of suspected fighters are left over after U.S.-backed forces captured the last area held by ISIS. More than 7,000 of them have been tried in the Kurdish-controlled area of northeastern Syria. There, officials say they are trying to provide a justice system that's more fair than the summary trials and executions the militants have faced elsewhere.

One of the judges let NPR's Jane Arraf into her courtroom. And a warning to our listeners that this story contains the sounds of gunfire and descriptions of graphic violence.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Judge Amina tells the prisoner to enter. He walks in wearing slippers, sweatpants and a black long-sleeved T-shirt. He sits down in an office chair facing a long desk with three judges behind it. He holds the black blindfold he was wearing

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMINA: (Foreign language spoken).

MAHMOUD AMER: (Foreign language spoken).

AMINA: (Foreign language spoken).

AMER: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: The judge confirms his name and other details. He's a 22-year-old Syrian from a town near the Iraqi border, and he's accused of being the assistant to a senior Iraqi ISIS leader.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMINA: (Foreign language spoken).

AMER: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: The prisoner, a former stoneworker, confirms he's been an ISIS member for two years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMINA: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: He answers the judge's questions. We sit on a sofa in the back of the room in a building that used to belong to the Agriculture Ministry of the Syrian government near the city of Qamishli. When Kurdish Syrians broke away from Syrian government control here, they also created their own justice system, one aspiring to international standards of human rights. There are defense lawyers and no death penalty. A fighter will, at most, get 20 years in prison.

Officials here tell us revenge is for the weak. The aim is to rehabilitate prisoners. The senior judge, Amina, who for security reasons wants only her first name used, tells us in an interview there are difficulties.

AMINA: (Through interpreter) We don't have crime labs or forensic medicine. We can't do fingerprints or analyze DNA. We have very basic capabilities.

ARRAF: She says most of the accused were captured on the battlefield where they were fighting. And most of them confess, she says, without being tortured, which is strictly prohibited. Many of them were held for months by security forces, and it's difficult to verify that statement. She says the prisoners often have incriminating photos or video on their phones.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

ARRAF: One of the judges shows us a video used to convict a Syrian fighter dressed in military fatigues with a long beard. He shoots a kneeling man in the head.

AMINA: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: It's a shock to some ISIS fighters to be sentenced by a woman, perhaps particularly one with long blond hair and fuchsia sunglasses perched on her head.

AMINA: (Through interpreter) When he comes into the room and sits in front of me and hears the voice of a woman, he looks at the ground. I tell him, I am talking to you. Raise your head and look at the committee.

ARRAF: As part of the region's emphasis on gender equality, all panels of judges include both men and women. They don't have judges' gowns. When we see her in court, Amina wears a white shirt and jeans with embroidered butterflies, clothing ISIS would've whipped women for wearing in public.

This mostly Kurdish region of Syria fought with U.S. forces to defeat ISIS, but the U.S. and European countries don't recognize it as a self-governing region. The judges say they need help. In addition to the local fighters, security forces are holding 1,200 fighters from around the world. They want an international tribunal for them.

AMINA: (Through interpreter) We have been harmed by these crimes. The international community has to support northeast Syria by establishing a special court in this region.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMER: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Back in the courtroom, Amina hears the story of this fighter, Amer, unfold. By now, it's a familiar tale of military training, religious indoctrination and moving from city to city. There's 6,000 other cases to go.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, near Qamishli in northeastern Syria.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.