A young woman in a traditional long black cloak and a pink prison shirt holds a baby as she stands before a judge.
Then a toddler, becoming agitated in the hallway, is led into the wooden dock to join her mother. The little girl is perhaps 2 years old. She clutches the folds of her mother’s black abaya with a chubby hand, as she peers out through the wooden bars.
Her mother is one of about 28 foreign women who appeared in an Iraqi court in a single day in April, accused of being married to ISIS. They are among around 560 detained women recently or currently on trial in the country for their links to the extremist group, according to Baghdad’s central criminal court. The women are largely from Russia, Turkey and other countries including Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. Several are from France and Germany.
They have between them more than 1,100 young children, according to the court’s president. Detained and mostly shunned by their home countries, the children and mothers face a perilous future.
The women are being tried under Iraq’s sweeping antiterrorism law and many are handed lengthy prison sentences or sometimes the death penalty. Rights groups including Human Rights Watch say Iraq is going too far: Many women who aren’t themselves accused of perpetrating violence are being harshly punished for crimes committed by their husbands. But Iraqi officials say ISIS members must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
“I don’t have a criminal record,” a 19-year-old named Dina, from Russia’s Dagestan region, tells the judge in a trial in April. “I don’t believe in ISIS ideology.”
She says her husband didn’t keep weapons at home and wore civilian clothes. She says she doesn’t know if he was ISIS.
Apart from the judge, who is formally dressed and speaks sternly from a raised wooden platform, there is little to indicate the gravity of the trial.
An interpreter, an Iraqi university professor, is explaining the proceedings to defendants in Russian, wears short sleeves and jeans. A court-appointed defense lawyer has thrown his black robe over a shirt with no tie. Stacks of documents in colored folders are piled on a fake leather chair that is leaking stuffing.
The cases have already gone through an investigative court. At this final stage, each one wraps up in less than 10 minutes.
As the women appear in the courtroom, a court official reads out a list of defendants. They include names like Anastasia and Alisa, Dilvera and Rosanne, Farida and Dina. (The court would not publicly release the full names in writing.) They came from Moscow and Grozny, Tashkent and other places, following their husbands to ISIS’ promised caliphate.
“Just taking care of the children”
Tens of thousands of militants are believed to have poured into Syria and Iraq following ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of a restored Islamic empire in 2014. Many fighters took women, captured from Yazidi and other minority communities in the region, as sex slaves. Some also brought their wives and children.
By last December, U.S.-backed Iraqi forces won back control of most areas seized by ISIS. What to do with the foreign militants’ surviving families, many of them held in detention in Iraq, has been a challenge for Iraqi officials and defendants’ home countries.
Almost all the defendants in the Baghdad court tell the judge they had no choice but to follow their husbands.
“I am innocent. I was just taking care of the children,” a 24-year-old defendant identified as Alisa tells the judge.
The defense lawyer reads a statement saying her husband had been married to five other women at the same time, and she was unaware he was a member of ISIS.
Many of the defendants’ husbands were killed in Iraq in battle against U.S.-backed forces fighting ISIS. Some of the men were killed in Syria. Last year, as ISIS lost most of its territory, the women surrendered to Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq and were eventually transferred to an overcrowded jail in Baghdad.
“I never wanted to come to Iraq,” Farida, 23, tells the judge. She says her husband, Ursalan, was killed in an airstrike in Iraq. “My husband deceived me, he told me we were going to Turkey,” she says.
Dhariat, 21, says she and her husband entered Iraq in 2014 without passports to live in the city of Tal Afar, near the Syrian border. Her husband worked on water pipelines before he was killed in an airstrike, she says. “I didn’t know where I was when we came to Iraq,” the young Russian woman tells the court.
Some of the women say they came for what they considered a better life. All of them deny being ISIS members, but acknowledge receiving living expenses from the group. When asked by the judge, most say they were paid $50 a month.
“We were very tired from farm work, so we emigrated to Iraq” from Tajikistan, says a 58-year-old woman, the oldest of the day’s defendants. “We thought they [ISIS] were right but later it became clear they were wrong,” she says.
“I am innocent. The only thing I did was to enter the country without a passport,” she says.
Although almost all say they were housewives, Zarina, 34, says she worked as a sales manager in Dagestan and went to Turkey to study. She says after her husband was killed in Syria, ISIS forced her to marry a wounded man in Iraq who was mentally ill. “I don’t believe in ISIS and I want to go home,” she tells the court.
Almost all the women have infants or toddlers with them in court and older children in the jail. Thirty babies were born in detention to hundreds of women on trial, says a prison guard who did not want to give her name for security reasons.
In Iraq, children stay with their mothers in prison until being moved to orphanages when they begin school.
“What will happen to these children?” the defense lawyer tells me later in the hallway. A 30-year-veteran of Iraqi courts, he asked that his name not be used due to security fears.
“ISIS destroyed these people. It was all out of their control. … What is the fate of these children? They will be poor and abandoned,” he says.
One of several court-appointed lawyers, he says he was given files on his clients’ defense only moments before the trial began. His role was to read a brief statement for each of the defendants.
In the hallway before the proceedings begin, the translator calls out: “Russia, Russia.” Russian Embassy officials gather around and the translator checks their names on a list.
One of the embassy officials says that without passports for the defendants, they have not been able to prove the women are Russian.
As the trial starts, one of the women comes in with a small boy wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Let the Adventure Begin.”
One of the Russian diplomats sitting in the gallery looks pained as an exhausted-looking child with pale skin and blond hair standing next to his mother peers out blankly at him from the dock.
During a break in the proceedings, the Russian officials approach the bench to ask about the procedure for repatriating children. Judge Suhail Abdullah Saber advises them to contact the Iraqi foreign ministry.
“We wish all the countries would take all the women and children,” Saber tells the Russian officials. “Iraq is paying $1 million a month to take care of them.”
The women sit in the hallway along with their children as they wait to re-enter the courtroom.
“How do we get our children to Russia?” one of the women asks me in broken Arabic.
A woman who identifies herself as Dylara Zein al-Deen says her Azeri husband worked in Iraq and Syria as a minibus driver. She says her husband and 12-year-old daughter were killed in an airstrike in Iraq two years ago. Her husband did not tell her they were going to Iraq, she says.
Nadira, holding her son 1-1/2-year-old son Osama, says she does not want to be sent back to Uzbekistan.
“If I were in prison there, I can’t wear the hijab and I can’t read the Quran,” she tells me. “They might execute me. I would like to be sent to any Arab country.”
She says if she tried to contact her mother back in Uzbekistan, her mother would be arrested. She wonders aloud to me whether she might be released if her mother-in-law in Turkey sent bail money.
Another complains the detainees don’t get enough to eat or drink. Prison guards deny this.
“We give them good food, fruit, milk,” says a female prison guard who asked to be identified as Um Hussein. She wears a fashionable red-and-black cardigan, black sneakers, sunglasses perched on top of her head scarf and gold bracelets gleaming on her wrist. “They say, ‘This is haram‘ [religiously unclean]. They won’t eat it. We throw out a lot of food,” she says. “They think of us as infidels.”
Um Hussein insists that the prisoners are well cared-for. “We give them good services but they won’t even let their children approach us,” she says. “If any of them become friendly to us, the other ones beat her at night.”
Another prison guard, a man, chimes in: “They are brainwashed, even the children.” He also asked that his name not be used for security reasons. “Some of them feel regret, but the majority of them are ISIS,” he says.
“Same penalty as main perpetrator”
The trial rooms of Baghdad’s central criminal court — built by the United States 15 years ago — are showing signs of wear. They have held thousands of terrorism trials since Iraq passed its sweeping antiterrorism law in 2005.
The legislation stipulates life imprisonment and death sentences under a broad category of convictions. Anyone helping commit a terrorist act “shall face the same penalty as the main perpetrator,” it says, and it lists a number of crimes that carry capital punishment. It also states “anyone who intentionally covers up any terrorist act or harbors a terrorist with the purpose of concealment, shall be sentenced to life imprisonment.” A life sentence means 20 years in prison.
Iraq’s justice ministry says it will not release statistics or nationalities of those sentenced under terrorism laws. But it has publicized some of the cases.
In February, the ministry said it delivered death sentences to 16 Turkish women convicted of involvement with ISIS. in April, Iraq said it sentenced three women from Azerbaijan and another from Kyrgyzstan to death. All the sentences go through appeal.
In an interview in his office, Judge Saber, the head of the central criminal court, says the punishment for ISIS membership is meant to deter others from joining such groups.
“Any foreigner who lived in ISIS territory is considered to have joined ISIS and is loyal to them,” Saber says of the women on trial. “They wanted to live in the Islamic State and they believed in it.”
He said the ISIS families knowingly entered Iraq illegally and lived in the homes of people displaced by the group.
“If we left people who joined ISIS without any punishment, that would be an injustice to the people they harmed,” says Saber. “The law punishes the criminal and gives justice to the victim.”
Saber says after media attention over the children, some countries have expressed interest in repatriating them if relatives can be located. But most countries have refused to take the suspects back, he says.
“I would prefer that they be tried in their own countries because they are not Iraqi,” he says. “It’s not possible for them to live in this country — not even the children.”
After an hour-long recess, the women are called in to be sentenced — all except one in a wheelchair, too weak to talk and deemed too ill to stand trial.
For each of the women, Saber reads out the names and declares a life sentence. Unless the verdicts are overturned on appeal, they will each serve 20 years in prison.
Few of the women visibly react. It’s the sentence most seem to have expected. As Nadira walks back out to the hallway to be taken back to prison, she looks over at me and shrugs.