AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
There is a revenge campaign happening in Mosul. This started when Iraqi forces were fighting to retake the city from ISIS, and it's gone on since Iraq regained control of it. Soldiers have been rounding up and prosecuting anyone suspected to be a member of ISIS or related to one or a sympathizer of the terrorist group. In many cases, those detained are abused and executed. Human rights observers say the tactics being used by the military are war crimes.
BELKIS WILLE: I mean in terms of executions, we're seeing men being shot. We're seeing even more grotesque cases - for example, men being thrown off cliffs into the Tigris River and then being shot upon as they land. Numerous cases of really severe torture, sometimes leading to death.
CORNISH: Belkis Wille is senior Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch. I asked her how many people have been killed.
WILLE: Unfortunately getting numbers is incredibly difficult. One of the main reasons that it is so difficult is that the Iraqi forces are restricting access not only to organizations like Human Rights Watch but to international journalists. All I can say anecdotally is that when I go into camps, camps that are housing the displaced families from Mosul, almost every tent I go to either has a loved one who is missing or has loved ones who were killed as they were escaping the city.
CORNISH: And I used the phrase prosecuting in our introduction, but is that what's going on here? I mean how do they determine if someone was ISIS or, as they're known locally, Daesh?
WILLE: Well, when ISIS took hold in 2014, the authorities immediately drew together a list of what at the time was 8,000 names of individuals that locals who fled ISIS territory identified as supporters of ISIS, ISIS fighters. That list has grown and is now over 90,000 names. And basically when men and boys flee any territory that was under ISIS control, their identity cards get checked against this database of names.
And if their name is flagged, then they are detained. And they undergo a judicial process whereby interrogators extract a confession generally and then put them before an investigative judge. That's the formal process. And what we've seen throughout this operation but particularly in the last weeks is that local fighters on the ground are deciding, we don't have time for this justice system; we know who's ISIS, and we're going to take justice into our own hands and execute them.
CORNISH: You mentioned the Iraqi government keeping this list of potential ISIS militants. But is it not the case that there are people who are sympathizers just to protect their friends and family, right? I mean they were trapped in these areas.
WILLE: Absolutely. And unfortunately the Iraqi legal system, under its counterterrorism law, draws no distinction between a man who was an ISIS fighter and beheaded individuals, had women as sex slaves and a guy who joined ISIS as a cook simply because he needed to bring in a living for his family.
Now, Iraq has in place currently an amnesty law that is meant to release individuals if they can demonstrate that while they were a member of ISIS they did not hurt anyone or did they join against their will. But I've spoken to the most senior counterterrorism judges that are sitting in on these cases right now. And they've told me, we see no difference, and we do not believe that anyone who did anything to support ISIS deserves an amnesty. So they're simply not applying this law.
CORNISH: You've said that the persecution of ISIS suspects now could inadvertently drive more people toward extremism. Why do you think that?
WILLE: I think you really need to look at ISIS and why ISIS for so many years was able to draw in so many recruits - young, Sunni Arab men - throughout Iraq and Syria. And it comes with a history.
Since 2003, with the fall of Saddam's government and an incoming Shia government that put Shia fighters into the military and brought in Shia militia, what we saw was rampant abuse that usually took the form of torture, executions, really targeting Sunni Arab men. These were the very men that ultimately joined ISIS, saying, we're sick of this complete impunity for Iraqi armed forces. And if this battle opens the floodgates to that very abuse that pushed men to join ISIS, we're going to continue to see young men wanting to join.
CORNISH: Belkis Wille is a senior Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
WILLE: Thank you.
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