Alleged Islamic State fighter faces Dutch war crimes charges

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – An alleged Dutch-born Islamic State militant went on trial in the Netherlands on Monday for war crimes in Iraq and Syria, including breaches of the Geneva Conventions, after posing with a crucified body and sharing images of dead victims online.

Dutch Judges Rose Perquin, Mariette Renckens (presiding) and Jantien Holleman and clerks Ekkart (first name unavailable) and Milica Sepmeijer sit in the courtroom prior the Netherlands’ first war crimes trial for alleged atrocities in Syria committed by two Dutch nationals who fought with ISIS, in the courthouse in Schiphol, Netherlands July 8, 2019. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw

It is the first trial in the Netherlands dealing with war crimes by an alleged Islamic State militant.

There is no international tribunal to prosecute widespread atrocities during Syria’s civil war which began on 2011, but prosecutors in several European countries have put on trial nationals who joined militant groups in the Middle East.

According to European police agency Europol, some 5,000 Europeans — most from Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands — went to fight in Syria and Iraq, of whom some 1,500 have returned.

Oussama Achraf Akhlafa, 24, faces allegations of violating international law, after allegedly 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 breaking international law on the rules of armed conflict by violating the personal dignity of war victims, as well as membership in a terrorist organisation.

Prosecutors said Akhlafa 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 the body of a dead woman with a foot on her.

In a statement, Akhlafa said he joined IS after becoming homeless in the Netherlands, but 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.”

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“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 funnest thing there is, but it is highly dangerous,” the judge quoted him as writing.

The defendant said his remark was intended to impress women.

A second defendant, 24-year-old Reda Nidalha, also went on trial on Monday, accused of membership in a terrorist organisation and recruiting radical jihadists via Facebook.

Dutch-born Nidalha, who sat in a black t-shirt, which a shaved head and thick beard, was questioned by judges 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.”

Slideshow (7 Images)

Nidalha said he couldn’t explain how his family obtained photos of him wearing army fatigues and posing with weapons.

In Syria, he said he received first aid training, not weapons training, and then helped emergency medical teams collecting the dead and wounded from the battlefield.

Nidalha denied accusations of trying to recruit four people for Islamic State, saying the Facebooks chats were “not serious.”

Reporting by Anthony Deutsch, Editing by William Maclean

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