Baghdad, Iraq, May 27 – An Iraqi court on Monday condemned a fourth French citizen to death for joining the Islamic State group, despite France reiterating its opposition to capital punishment.
Mustapha Merzoughi, a 37-year-old former French army soldier, was sentenced to death by hanging, according to an AFP journalist at the court.
In recent months Iraq has taken custody of thousands of jihadists including foreigners captured in neighbouring Syria by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) during the battle to destroy the IS “caliphate”.
Among them are 12 French citizens, three of whom — Kevin Gonot, Leonard Lopez and Salim Machou — were handed death sentences Sunday by a Baghdad court in a first for French jihadists.
They have 30 days to appeal.
The trials have been criticised by rights groups, which say they often rely on evidence obtained through torture.
They have also raised the question of whether suspected IS jihadists should be tried in the region or repatriated, in the face of strong public opposition at home.
France has long insisted that its adult citizens captured in Iraq or Syria must face trial locally, refusing to repatriate them despite the risk they face capital punishment for waging their jihadist war in the region.
Paris on Monday reiterated its opposition to the death penalty, saying it would take “the necessary steps” to prevent Iraq from carrying out capital punishment against its citizens.
“France is opposed in principle to the death penalty at all times and in all places,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
French government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye told France’s BFMTV that “we are not going to ask Iraq’s government for a stay on this death sentence… (but) all the avenues have not yet been exhausted”.
– ‘Ask for forgiveness’ –
Before handing down his sentence, the judge told Merzoughi on Monday that “the evidence and the confession show that you joined the Islamic State group, that you worked in its military branch.”
Wearing a yellow prison uniform, the French citizen with Tunisian roots said he was “not guilty of crimes and killings” but simply of travelling to Syria.
“I ask for forgiveness from the people of Iraq, Syria, France and the families of the victims,” he said.
Originally from Toulouse in southwestern France, Merzoughi told investigators he had served in the French army from 2000 to 2010, including a tour in Afghanistan in 2009.
Passing through Belgium and then Morocco, Merzoughi said in court on Monday he underwent “religious and military training” in the Iraqi city of Mosul.
He allegedly told investigators previously that he “pledged allegiance to a masked IS leader in Mosul”, claiming that many senior jihadists worried about being “recognised or identified by foreign fighters they feared were spies”.
But in court on Monday Merzoughi said he never pledged allegiance to the jihadist group.
Testifying for around two hours, he contended that he was left with “no choice but to leave” his home country, after he got divorced and lost his job as a truck driver.
He said he quickly became disillusioned with life under IS, and was detained by the jihadist group for “spying” because he had mulled fleeing the group’s clutches.
– ‘Summary justice’ –
Four other Frenchmen also appeared in court on Monday — Fodil Tahar Aouidate, who claimed he was beaten by interrogators, Vianney Ouraghi, Bilel Kabaoui and Mourad Delhomme, who are all due to appear again in early June.
Clenching his jaw and dressed in a yellow prison uniform, Aouidate, 32, said he had been beaten so that he would “confess to what they (his interrogators) demanded”.
Like Merzoughi, he claimed he was imprisoned by IS after being accused of spying.
The judge ordered Aouidate — who was jailed in France in 2010 for drug trafficking and was one of over 20 members of the same family to travel to Syria — be sent for a medical examination before his next court appearance.
Before the most recent verdicts, three French citizens had been convicted of joining IS in Iraq: Melina Boughedir, 27, Djamila Boutoutaou, 29, and Lahcene Gueboudj, 58.
All three were sentenced to life, equivalent to 20 years in Iraq.
The Iraqi judiciary said earlier in May that it has tried and sentenced more than 500 suspected foreign members of IS since the start of 2018.
Its courts have condemned many to life in prison and others to death, although no foreign IS members have yet been executed.
The country remains in the top five “executioner” nations in the world, an Amnesty International report said in April.