A private organization investigating possible war crimes in Syria is preparing to expand its operations into neighbouring Iraq, raising the prospect that the first criminal cases against Islamic State leaders could be ready for prosecution within months.
The not-for-profit organization, which cannot be named out of concern for its employees' safety, launched a covert investigation into IS operations in Syria last January. Backed by Denmark and Britain, investigators in Syria have collected reams of information detailing the group's command and control structures.
Their goal is to lay the groundwork now, while the conflict is still raging, that will allow them to link top IS operatives to crimes committed against the Syrian population. (Separate investigations are under way to gather evidence on atrocities committed by Bashar al-Assad's regime).
Trained investigators embedded with Syrian armed opposition groups provide documents, interrogate captured IS fighters and collect information from sources within the extremist group, allowing analysts to build cases that eventually could be prosecuted in a criminal court.
So far, their investigation has excluded neighbouring Iraq. That's expected to change by mid-January, when a new source of funding will allow the team to expand into parts of Iraq that are under Islamic State control. "If you're only looking at IS in Syria, then you're only looking at a part of the organization and a part of its criminal conduct," one investigator said. "The offences being perpetrated in Iraq and Syria are of the same heinous nature."
The investigator, who is from a Western country and holds a leadership role in the organization, spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for his safety and the security of the investigative team's operations.
The expected cost of the group's expansion into Iraq is about $1.5-million (U.S.), a figure that would cover the first year of its operations. They expect to receive roughly $250,000 from one European country and are in talks with other governments to cover additional costs as their operations proceed.
The group sent its proposal for the Iraq expansion to the office of Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird in September but has yet to hear anything back, the investigator said.
Its expansion comes at a time of significant international concern about the scale of the violence in IS-occupied Iraq. A recent United Nations report found that militants in the country have carried out widespread, systematic attacks against civilians, including mass executions, sexual violence against women and girls, and forced recruitment of child soldiers.
The investigative team believes it could have one or more cases prepared for prosecution in Iraq as soon as six months after the investigation in that country begins – although actually getting a case before a court could take much longer.
Unlike Syria, Iraq's legal system is still functioning and a trial could, theoretically, be held in a domestic courtroom.
But a suspect would still need to be apprehended or tried in absentia, and both options could prove problematic while the conflict continues. Some observers say it would be difficult to imagine Iraqi security forces capturing a high-level suspect alive. And the alternative – trying a suspect in absentia – risks sending the wrong message about holding perpetrators of war crimes fully to account.
A future court would also need to address witness protection issues and may not have the capacity or experience to properly prosecute a war-crimes case. The investigator said he has recommended to a UN agency that the international community consider measures such as training and other support to bolster Iraqi courts' ability to handle cases in the future.
Despite the challenges of bringing a case to trial, many experts say it's crucial to gather the information now, before perpetrators have a chance to cover their tracks and evidence becomes harder to find. In Iraq, the investigation will include the question of whether crimes against members of the Yazidi religious minority fit the legal definition of genocide – a crime that is particularly difficult to prosecute.
Asked this week about the group's proposal for expanding into Iraq, a spokesman for Mr. Baird replied that Canada has consistently called for the perpetrators of serious international crimes in Syria and Iraq to be held to account. "We have announced a number of measures to support the victims of [Islamic State's] brutal crimes, and continue to work on options to provide further assistance," Adam Hodge wrote in an e-mail.