DUHOK, Iraq — In August last year, militants from the Islamic State (IS) seized control of several villages in Sinjar, northern Iraq, that were home to members of the minority Yazidi sect.
The events that followed have been characterized as an attempt to wipe out the followers of this ancient religion, whose beliefs IS views as pagan and polytheistic.
Women and children were captured as slaves and handed out to fighters as booty or sold in markets throughout IS territory. Thousands of men were rounded up and imprisoned. In many villages Yazidis were given an ultimatum to convert to Islam or be executed. In some areas, like in the village of Kocho, men were simply lined up and shot in the head.
Last month, Kurdish forces began a push to retake crucial areas of the Nineveh plains, including many villages in the region of Sinjar where eyewitness reports say mass executions of Yazidi men took place.
But while the battle on the ground continues, a new campaign is beginning away from the fighting as Yazidi and Kurdish leaders seek to have the IS attacks classified as genocide. The hope is that a case will be brought against the group at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
“If you look at what has happened in Sinjar, the evidence shows an act of genocide,” said Hazem Tazin Saeed, a prominent Yazidi leader, during an interview at his home in Duhok province last month. “They have been displaced, they have been killed, raped, kidnapped, and executed en masse. What more proof do you need to label this a genocide?”
Following the attacks, the Kurdish Regional Government established a five-man committee to investigate and present a case of possible genocide.
But while a case in favor of the classification may seem clear, to prove such a claim in an international court would require complex and arduous investigative, analytical and legal work that Iraq may not have the resources or manpower to handle.
A new battle
“Genocide cases are very complicated,” said Hussein Hassoun, advisor to the KRG Prime Minister Nechervan Barzani and an expert in law and international relations who now heads the investigation committee. “Strict procedures for interviews and evidence gathering must be followed, but in the Middle East it is hard to find anyone with experience in investigating such a crime.”
The UN's 1948 convention on genocide describes it as the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
Hassoun said his biggest obstacle in building a case is a lack of experience from all parties involved. While he ensures at least basic training is provided for his own investigative team, the lack of skills within government and military bodies is frustrating and could prove detrimental.
“While we wait for clearance to investigate these areas, soldiers are moving through with no knowledge of how to secure a crime scene or preserve evidence,” he said.
One piece of footage played on local television showed a reporter at the scene of what could be a mass execution site, moving between bodies and tampering with clothing and other items belonging to the unidentified victims. Information on the identity of the victims at the site had not been released publicly when it aired.
The ICC investigation team had still not been given clearance to visit the site as clashes between IS militants and Kurdish peshmerga forces in the area continued.
“It is frustrating to see this while our hands are tied dealing with political delays,” Hassoun said.
A further barrier to presenting a case to the ICC is that Iraq is not a member state. For a case to be tried, the Iraqi government would need to agree to either become a member or permit the ICC to investigate within Iraq on a limited mandate, Hassoun said.
But he is still confident the evidence is there to build a strong case for a genocide trial. A native of Sinjar, Hassoun was in his hometown during the attacks of Aug. 3.
“During that escape to the mountains I saw a lot of unbearable things. I thought to myself, this is genocide,” he said.
Since then, Hassoun has met hundreds of survivors who described their suffering.
Hiding under the bodies
“They took us to an open area in front of a trench. They told us to make a row. We looked down and we saw bodies,” Firas, a 15-year-old survivor of a mass killing of Yazidi men in the town of Kocho, told GlobalPost following his escape in August. “We were all lying on top of each other. They thought they killed everyone. They came through and shot everyone in the head and the back. Then they left.”
Firas survived by hiding under the bodies of the other victims before running to the Sinjar Mountains.
“We drove past so many bodies. Even the bodies of children,” said a 19-year-old mother who escaped after being bundled into the back of a truck with her one-year-old son and the rest of the women from her village and transported to Mosul for sale as a slave.
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“We would try to make ourselves look ugly. Some women would cry or scream or fight, but it made no difference. They were always taken anyway,” said a 15-year-old who managed to escape after she was sold in Mosul to an IS militant she estimated to be 4 or 5 times her age.
It was stories like these that pushed Hassoun to lobby for the formation of the investigation team.
“This is an entire community and an ancient religious way of life that is at risk of extinction,” he said.
Over the past few months the investigation team has been gathering photo and video evidence and documenting names of the dead and missing. Through hundreds of eyewitness accounts they have pieced together details of massacres, displacement, forced conversions, enslavement and rape.
Bertrand Patenaude, a lecturer in history and international relations at Stanford University with a focus on genocide and international crimes, said the legal definition of genocide does not necessarily refer to systematic executions but any attempt to “undermine the integrity and viability of the group in question.”
This can be through mass executions like those seen in Rwanda and during the Holocaust, but it could also be through other means including exile, starvation, rape, the destruction of a group's economic viability, or forced conversions, all of which IS has perpetrated against the Yazidis of northern Iraq.
However, the problem with gaining an ICC conviction for genocide is proving “intent.” Patenaude said if the lesser charges of war crimes or crimes against humanity were sought in a case against IS, it's the results of their actions that would matter. The evidence would be more clear-cut. But with genocide, a conviction lies in the ability to demonstrate intent specifically on the part of the individuals facing trial — presumably the leaders of IS.
The case for intent
In October, IS published an article explaining their actions against the Yazidis in the fourth edition of their English-language magazine Dabiq.
Referring to the Yazidis as an ancient “pagan minority,” the article states: “Their continual existence to this day is a matter that Muslims should question as they will be asked about it on Judgment Day.”
The article goes on to explain harsh interpretations of Koranic verses that differ greatly from the interpretations accepted by the vast majority of Muslims. Among them is a passage also quoted by IS alongside photographs of executions posted to social media within the first few days of the atrocities.
Dabiq translates the passage as, “….kill the mushrikīn (pagans) wherever you find them, and capture them, and besiege them, and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush….”
Following the takeover of Yazidi territory in Sinjar, an estimated 40,000 civilians fled to the Sinjar Mountains, where IS besieged the starving population, who had no food, water or shelter. The besiegement was listed as a key reason for US renewed involvement in Iraq when airstrikes against IS began in early August.
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The Dabiq article goes on to speak of the enslavement of women and children who “were then divided … amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations” or "sold" by the state as slaves. The text makes several references to Yazidi women as concubines, affirming the sexual nature of their enslavement.
The writer concludes by quoting contemporary Islamic scholars as saying the desertion of slavery has led to an increase in adultery and fornication, while this “revival of slavery” means sexual relationships between a man and his “concubine” would be “legal.”
Patenaude said the content of this article could weigh heavily in a case of genocide. But while Dabiq and its publisher the Al Hayat media center are widely considered to be the IS mouthpiece, Patenaude said proving the official nature of the magazine so as to be permissible in court and making it stick to the individuals on trial is yet another challenge standing in the way of an ICC charge of genocide.
But a ruling on genocide, if successful, would have more impact than charges of war crimes or crimes against humanity.
“Crimes against humanity are often no less horrific than acts of genocide,” Petenaude said. “But the genocide label ... strikes a special chord. Although it's arguably been overused in the past couple of decades, the term genocide still gets people to sit up and pay attention. And the attention of the international community is what the Yazidi people desperately need.”
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Hassoun said a charge of genocide would empower the Yazidis and the Kurdish and Iraqi governments to lobby for an international resolution, which could bring tangible benefits to Yazidi victims.
“If the ICC agree, you can then knock on the door of the UN and demand international protection to restore our cities,” he said.
The Yazidi minority has been persecuted by their neighbors for centuries. The current threat is the 73rd time this ancient minority has been severely threatened as a result of their beliefs, according to Yazidi officials.
“We don't have a culture of acceptance,” Hassoun said, referring to threats against Yazidis and other minorities throughout Iraq and the Middle East. “These groups cannot be left alone to their own fates.”
He added: “It’s about more than just freeing these people from IS hands. It’s about preserving the culture, the way of life, the temples, the economy of the community and saving the relationship between Yazidis and Arabs.”