Putting ISIS killers in jail: UN releases evidence collection app

Head of investigators unveils latest tech tool to give victims justice

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Former Yazidi sex slaves and others who suffered under the brutal reign of ISIS will soon be able to upload evidence against their abusers through a mobile phone app, the head of the UN investigation team in Iraq said on Monday.

Karim Ahmad Khan told a video UN Security Council meeting that the app, which will come online this month, will allow ISIS victims to upload photographs and other proof of abuse to help put perpetrators behind bars.

Mr Khan is the head of the investigations team known as Unitad.

The app is a boon for ISIS victims, many of whom fled overseas during the extremist group's onslaught and have struggled to testify against their abusers.

Victims’ groups say that too few ISIS militiamen have faced justice for their crimes.

“We’re rolling out a mobile application that allows Unitad to work and communicate directly with the survivor communities, whether they’re in Iraq, Australia or Germany,” Mr Khan said.

“They can actually give us their names and details securely. They can even update photographs and other material so that we can expedite our focused investigation to get results.”

Head of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by ISIL (UNITAD) Karim Khan gives an interview at the Unitad headquarters in Baghdad on July 27, 2019. The head of the UN special probe into Islamic State group crimes has called for trials like those at Nuremberg of Nazi leaders to ensure IS victims are heard and its ideology "debunked". For a year, British lawyer Karim Khan has travelled Iraq with a team of almost 80 people to gather evidence and witness testimony for the UN body known as UNITAD. - TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY SARAH BENHAIDA
Karim Ahmad Khan, the head of the UN investigative team, said it had developed an app to help ISIS victims present evidence against their abusers. AFP

The app was initially designed to gather evidence in Iraq under the coronavirus pandemic travel restrictions, Unitad said in its latest report.

But it became clear that it could ease communication with victims who had fled Iraq and lived overseas.

The app is not the first time UN investigators have turned to technology to build cases against ISIS militiamen, who swept across western Iraq from Syria in 2014 to expand their self-declared caliphate and brutalise minorities.

Mr Khan said “4K drones” had been sent to capture high-quality footage of mass graves and the sites of ISIS atrocities.

High-tech “3D laser scanners” on the ground could also help to build powerful cases.

“We can preserve crime scenes and represent them in 3D modelling so that, whether it’s in Baghdad or Bartella or Berlin, this evidence can be put before judges so they can understand what took place, how it took place, and it can bring life to the accounts of witnesses and courageous survivors,” Mr Khan said.

Iraqi prosecutors have provided UN detectives with about 2 million data trails from mobile phone communications in Sinjar from July and August 2014, when ISIS was rampaging through the Yazidi heartland, he said.

“That allows us to locate witnesses, who have given accounts to say where they were, and perpetrators, to see where suspects were, who they spoke to in different time periods," Mr Khan said.

"We’ve used that technology with quite some success."

War crimes investigators have also received mobile phones, hard drives, computers and other equipment confiscated from ISIS prisoners that can be “scrubbed for evidence” and used by prosecutors in Iraq and overseas.

FILE - In this March 15, 2019 file photo, workers start the exhumation process of a mass grave in Iraq's northwestern region of Sinjar. U.N. investigators have collected millions of call data records implicating Islamic State militants in atrocities committed in northern Iraq, but delays in passing a law to govern war crimes probes is hindering the pursuit of justice, according to the head of the investigation. Hundreds of suspects have been identified in connection to atrocities committed against the Yazidi minority in 2014, when IS swept across northern Iraq. Karim Khan, leading the investigation, said the use of 3D technology is helping with the analysis of mass grave sites. (AP Photo/Farid Abdulwahed, File)
Investigators begin the exhumation of a mass grave in Iraq's north-western region of Sinjar on March 15, 2019. AP Photo

Mr Khan said the approach was paying off.

Investigators have used digital evidence, exhumations of mass graves and witness testimonies to identify 344 ISIS abusers across 16 crime sites in the north-western Sinjar region.

They have also begun to broaden their search, including for non-Yazidi ISIS victims.

They include the Shabak, Kakai and Turkmen communities and Sunni Muslims.

Mr Khan urged Iraqi politicians to pass a law designed by President Barham Salih to allow courts to prosecute war crimes, which has been delayed in recent months during Iraq’s political turmoil, mass protest movement and the coronavirus outbreak.

Iraq’s UN ambassador, Mohammed Al Uloom, told the council that his country's “wounds will heal only by revealing the perpetrators of these heinous crimes and by bringing them to justice”.

Iraqi forces were brushed aside as ISIS swept across the country in 2014, slaughtering thousands of members of the Yazidi minority community in Sinjar and forcing more than 7,000 women and girls into sexual slavery.

A US-led military coalition pushed the militants back and Iraq declared victory over ISIS in December 2017.

Iraqi officials have since prosecuted tens of thousands of detained former fighters, but Human Rights Watch and Yazidi activists say the trials are often flawed.

A UN report in January found that Iraqi judges relied too heavily on confessions from suspects, which are often obtained under torture.

Many suspects have been prosecuted for membership of ISIS, rather than for the specific atrocities they had committed.

Under pressure from human rights lawyer Amal Clooney and Yazidi survivors, the UN Security Council in 2017 created Unitad to help Iraq collect and preserve evidence for future prosecution.