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Italian Muslim convert found guilty of helping Islamic State

MILAN (Reuters) - An Italian woman who traveled to Syria two years ago proclaiming her support for Islamic State was sentenced in absentia on Monday to nine years in jail on terrorism-related charges, a court ruled.

Maria Giulia Sergio, an Italian women who travelled to Syria two years ago proclaiming her support for the Islamic State and known by her alias Fatima Az-Zahra, is seen in these undated photos released by Italian Police. Polizia di Stato Press Office/Handout via REUTERS

Maria Giulia Sergio, 29, converted to Islam in 2007 and moved to Syria with her Albanian-born husband in 2014. She later urged her parents and sister to join them and sign up to the ‘jihad’ or holy war announced by Islamic State rulers.

“Dad, drag mum here by the hair. She doesn’t have the right to any opinions,” she said in a call home that was tapped by police. “I can’t wait to die as a martyr,” she said in another call, predicting that the holy war would one day reach Rome.

Her parents and sister began to sell their possessions after agreeing to move to Syria too. But they were arrested in 2015 and prevented from leaving Italy.

Maria Giulia was found guilty of international terrorism and organizing trips to facilitate terrorism.

The father was sentenced to four years in jail on Monday after being convicted of aiding terrorists. The sister was tried earlier this year and sentenced to five years, four months in prison. The mother died of a heart attack shortly after her arrest in 2015.

Maria Giulia’s husband, Aldo Kobuzi, was given a 10-year term. He is believed to be still in Syria with his wife, but nothing has been heard from them in more than a year.

The court sentenced a Canadian woman, Bushra Haik, to nine years in jail after finding her guilty of recruiting people, including Maria Giulia, to the extremist cause. She was tried in absentia and her whereabouts are not known.

The father’s lawyer said he would appeal against the ruling, arguing that his client had not wanted to join Islamic State but had simply looked to keep the family together.

Maria Giulia was born into a Roman Catholic family in southern Italy. She moved to the wealthier north and changed her name to Fatima az Zahra after converting to Islam.

Italian media reported that she became progressively radicalized and married Kobuzi in 2014, a man she barely knew, to facilitate her trip to Syria and to avoid being forced into marriage against her will on arrival there.

She defended the actions of Islamic State in an interview via Skype with Corriere della Sera newspaper in 2015.

“We decapitate people in the name of Allah. We kill because Sharia law demands it,” she was quoted as saying.

She was portrayed in court as a “foreign fighter” and nicknamed “Lady Jihad” by the Italian press.

The prosecution said that as a woman she would not have been allowed to fight on the front line. But they said that they had telephone taps showing she had learnt how to use firearms and that she had repeatedly said she wanted to fight.

Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Hugh Lawson