Iraq sentences Belgian man to death for belonging to Islamic State

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - An Iraqi court sentenced a Belgian man to death by hanging on Monday for being part of the Islamic State militant group, one of dozens of foreign nationals facing the death penalty in Iraq.

FILE PHOTO: Iraqis along with members of the security forces observe a minute of silence on the first anniversary of the government's proclaimed military defeat of Islamic State, at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani/File Photo

Iraq has put hundreds of suspected members of the ultra-hardline jihadist group on trial, many of whom were arrested as Islamic State lost a string of strongholds to U.S.-backed military campaigns throughout Iraq.

The Central Criminal Court in Baghdad handed Belgian national Bilal al-Marchohi, 23, the death penalty for belonging to and conducting operations on behalf of Islamic State (IS).

During an hour of proceedings, the presiding judge read out portions of Marchohi’s signed confession and showed a video and photographs that he said proved his membership of IS.

The images from a phone found in his possession at the time of his arrest showed Marchohi carrying a gun and making a hand gesture affiliated with the militants. Several pictures showed him cradling his infant son.

Marchohi denied all allegations against him in open court, including that he was a member of IS at any time.

“I shouldn’t be prosecuted in Iraq,” Marchohi said. “I should be prosecuted in Belgium. I am a Belgian citizen.”

Judge Jumaa Saidi told the court that the photographs were clear evidence Marchohi was a member of Islamic State.

A translator was appointed by the judge for Marchohi, who spoke in English throughout the trial. He was also given a court appointed lawyer but had no contact with him during the trial.

Belgian consular representatives attended the proceedings.

The Belgian Foreign Ministry said it had no power to intervene but had made clear to the Iraqi government its opposition to the death penalty. “We have done it a few times - even before Mr al-Marchohi and Mr Jadaoun were put to trial,” a ministry spokesman said in Brussels.

Marchohi’s family, who live in the Belgian city of Antwerp, declined to comment.

Islamic State redrew the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it declared an ultra-radical Sunni Islamist “caliphate” spanning parts of Syria and Iraq and established a rule known for mass killings, sexual enslavement and punishments like crucifixion.

Marchohi is the second of two Belgians held in Iraq known to have been sentenced to death for a role in Islamic State. Tarek Jadaoun, 30, also known as Abu Hamza al-Beljiki, was sentenced to death in May 2018. A senior member of Islamic State, Jadaoun featured prominently in the group’s propaganda videos which threatened attacks on European soil.

Human rights groups have accused Iraqi and other regional forces of inconsistencies in the judicial process and flawed trials leading to unfair convictions.

Islamic State captured a third of Iraq in 2014 but was largely defeated both there and in neighboring Syria last year.

Reporting by Raya Jalabi with additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel in Brussels; Editing by Mark Heinrich