ISIS fighters need to be tried for war crimes as well as terror offences to receive tougher sentences, EU prosecutors have said.
The move comes as the world’s first Yazidi genocide trial against a member of ISIS takes place in Germany against the backdrop of the EU Day Against Impunity for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes on Saturday.
Matevz Pezdirc, the head of the EU’s Genocide Network, urged countries to prosecute returning ISIS Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) as war criminals to ensure they were held accountable for their crimes and received longer sentences.
“Isis should not only be considered a terror organisation but also party to a non-international armed conflict taking place in Syria and Iraq,” he said.
“According to humanitarian law its members can be held responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and of genocide. Each foreign fighter and member of ISIS should be pursued as a terrorist and a war criminal.”
More than 20 ISIS terror cases are going through EU courts for war crimes offences and over 3,000 are currently being investigated.
These include people who took photographs with dead soldiers, spouses of FTFs, those who pillaged and others who gave child soldiers to ISIS.
“The number of new cases has kept rising over the last few years. These cases concern crimes committed worldwide,” the EU’s commissioner for justice, Didier Reynders, said.
“These criminals shall not remain unpunished. Perpetrators and accomplices shall be brought to justice. This is a clear signal to everyone that the EU stands united and firm to stop impunity for serious international crimes.”
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nadia Murad, whose family was murdered by ISIS, is backing the calls but said that years after the terror group devastated the Yazidi community more still needed to be done.
“It has been six years since ISIS killed thousands of Yazidi people and the Yazidi community is still awaiting justice and accountability,” she said.
“The road to justice is long and difficult. Six years is unacceptable particularly in light of the overwhelming weight of evidence that has been gathered. ISIS publicly advertised their heinous crimes against the Yazidis for the world to see.
“Yazidi victims lie in mass graves and the survivors stand ready to provide their evidence in court. ISIS members need to be held accountable in courts and victims who remain in captivity need to be brought home and have the opportunity to rebuild their lives.
“Thinking about my mother and my brother and the thousands of Yazidis who have their remains in mass graves without a respectable, dignified burial is painful for me as a survivor but living without receiving justice is another kind of torture. It is not enough for foreign fighters to be tried as terrorists; they must also be tried for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.”
A growing number of European countries have begun successfully prosecuting FTFs under terror legislation along with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
However, the Eurojust president, Ladislav Hamran, said prosecutions faced many challenges.
“Suspects are hard to identify, evidence has to be collected in war zones and witnesses are often impossible to locate,” he said.
“These are major problems for those who fight for a more just world but we cannot allow the EU to become a safe haven for perpetrators of core international crimes.”
In the UK a new offence, punishable by up to 10 years in jail, was introduced for anyone who enters a designated terrorism hotspot after Britain struggled to secure prosecutions and it was revealed that only 10 per cent of FTFs returning from Iraq and Syria have been prosecuted.
A report published on Saturday by the Genocide Network entitled the ‘Cumulative Prosecution of Foreign Terrorist Fighters for Core International Crimes and Terrorism-related Offences’ concludes that charging ISIS FTF’s with core international crimes as well as terror offences “increases the possibility of higher sentences and of getting justice done for victims”.
“During this fifth EU Day against Impunity, we show the world that we care, not only about European citizens but about humanity as a whole," Mr Hamran said.
“It is our joint responsibility to bring justice to the countless victims and people affected by armed conflicts. Eurojust proudly supports prosecutors dealing with cases concerning core international crimes and is honoured to host the Genocide Network secretariat.”
Prosecutors in Germany, France, Hungary, Finland and the Netherlands have ongoing cases against FTFs for terrorism and war crimes.
There is no time limit on bringing forward a war crime prosecution.
Yazidi campaigner Ms Murad has called on the exhumation of mass Yazidi graves as a “priority” to enable more evidence to be collected and for victims to be identified.
“We need collective action for the exhumation of mass graves as a priority to help locate and identify victims so families can provide a proper burial for their loved ones,” she said.
The ISIS assault on the Yazidis’ ancestral homeland in northern Iraq in 2014 was classed as genocide by the UN, which said the 400,000-strong community "had all been displaced, captured or killed”.
The number of EU terror investigations has risen by 14 per cent in the past year.