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Three French jihadists sentenced to death in Iraq

Heavy smoke rises above the Islamic State armed group's last remaining position in the village of Baghouz during battles with the Syrian Democratic Forces in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, 18 March 2019. AFP/Delil Souleiman

An Iraqi court has sentenced three French citizens to death for joining the the Islamic State (IS) armed group, court officials have said. They are the first IS members from France to be handed capital punishment.

Kevin Gonot, Leonard Lopez and Sali Machou were among 13 French nationals captured by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria and transferred to Iraq for trial.

The official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak with media, said the men have 30 days to appeal.

Iraq declared victory over the IS “caliphate” in late 2017 and began trying foreigners accused of joining the group in early 2018. Its prisons hold thousands of jihadists deported from Syria.

This month, Iraq’s judiciary said it had tried and sentenced more than 500 suspected IS members so far. Some have been sentenced to life in prison and others to death, though no foreign IS members have yet been executed.

Rights groups including Human Rights Watch have criticised the anti-terror trials, saying convictions are often based on circumstantial evidence or confessions obtained through torture.

Twelve French nationals on trial

The three men sentenced on Sunday are among 12 French nationals on trial under Iraq’s counterterrorism law, which can issue the death penalty to anyone deemed to have joined a “terrorist” group, even if they were not explicitly fighting.

Gonot was arrested in Syria with his mother, wife and half-brother. A French court also sentenced him in absentia to nine years in prison, according to the French Terrorism Analysis Centre.

Lopez travelled with his wife and two children from Paris to IS-held Mosul in northern Iraq before entering Syria, according to French investigators.

Machou was a member of a brigade of European fighters that carries out attacks in Iraq and Syria and planned others in Paris and Brussels, according to US officials.

One French national was released after it was found he was in Syria to support the Yazidi religious minority, which was targeted by a brutal IS campaign.

Capital punishment rises in Iraq

Baghdad has offered to try all of the approximately 1,000 foreign fighters in SDF custody in exchange for millions of dollars. Iraq has also tried thousands of its own nationals for joining the IS.

Amnesty International reported in April the country was one of the top five “executioner” nations in the world.

The number of death sentences issues by Iraqi courts has more than quadrupled between 2017 and 2018, to at least 271.

But Amnesty said 52 executions were carried out in 2018, down from 125 the year before.

(with wires)