The women who left Germany to join ISIS and returned are standing trial. This CEP blog series follows the trials of some of these female returnees, including Monika K. (read here), Nadine K. (here and here), Marcia M. (here), and Jennifer W. (first part here). An overview of the state of prosecutions in Germany can be found here (available in English and German) and recent developments in repatriation here.
On August 29, 2023, Jennifer W. was once again standing before the Higher Regional Court in Munich. After the public prosecutor successfully appealed her first conviction in October 2021, another set of judges had to decide the adequate sentence for the crimes that Jennifer W. committed in Iraq eight years ago. These new judges sentenced Jennifer W. to 14 years in prison for her membership in the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and, inter alia, a crime against humanity in the form of enslavement resulting in death. This increased her original sentence by four years.
A Crime Against Humanity
In summer 2015, Jennifer W. and her husband Iraqi national Taha Al J., enslaved, exploited, and abused Yazidi woman Nora T. B. and her five-year-old daughter Reda, resulting in the girl’s death. In 2021, a German court sentenced Taha Al J. to life imprisonment for his ISIS membership and, inter alia, genocide. Weeks earlier, Jennifer W. was convicted of ISIS membership and her role in the crimes against Nora T. B. and Reda. However, the court sentenced her to 10 years in prison for a “less serious case” of enslavement, effectively limiting the maximum prison sentence that could be imposed.
Not a "Less Serious Case" of Enslavement
Both the defendant and the public prosecutor appealed the verdict. The Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe (BGH) rejected the defendant’s appeal but followed the prosecutor’s arguments. In March 2023, the BGH found that the judges in the earlier case did not adequately consider all aggravating circumstances, especially the “inhuman motives and goals of the defendant.” Under the German criminal code, the circumstances in which a crime has been committed influence the sentencing decision. The BGH largely lifted the judges’ decision and referred Jennifer W.’s case back to another senate of the Munich Higher Regional Court.
During the second trial in summer 2023, the judges indeed found that “mitigating factors did not outweigh” the aggravating elements of her case and that consequently Jennifer W.’s was not a “less serious” case of enslavement. For example, aggravating circumstances included the length of the enslavement of several weeks and that the victims were not able to tell how long their enslavement would last. In addition, the court found that the defendant’s behavior after the crime increased the seriousness of her crime. Directly after Reda’s death, Jennifer W. held a weapon to Nora T. B.’s head, threatening to kill the mother if she did not stop crying. After her return to Germany, Jennifer W. also tried to travel a second time to Iraq. Most importantly, the court followed the prosecutor’s argument that Jennifer W.’s crimes must be considered in the larger context of the genocide against the Yazidi community. Recognizing the defendant’s “inhumane motivation” as well as the co-plaintiff’s severe and ongoing psychological suffering sends a strong signal to the Yazidi community and victims of terrorism in general.
Mitigating circumstances included that Jennifer W. had no criminal record (like almost all German female returnees); the five years of pre-trial detention as a terrorism suspect, which includes increased security related restrictions; and that in the end, she largely admitted to the charges and demonstrated remorse.
“No one can imagine what life was like with [Taha Al J.]”
An interesting aspect of this second trial was indeed Jennifer W.’s personal development. In 2021, she had admitted to some of the charges, including traveling to ISIS territory, living in women’s guest houses, and her husband’s ISIS membership. However, Jennifer W. denied having exploited Nora T. B. or having forced her to pray. At that time, the defendant also argued that she did not dare to help the child out of fear of being pushed or locked up by her husband—a reasoning difficult to comprehend. Two years later, Jennifer W. admitted that she had “relativized or contested” some aspects of the situation during her first trial. She confirmed that Reda had in fact died, something that the defense had tried to dispute during the first trial.
It is difficult to say whether Jennifer W. has genuinely begun to reflect on her actions. Despite her admissions, the prosecutors continued to highlight that she does not display “heartfelt remorse” and pointed out her “ambivalent behavior” during pre-trial detention. Jennifer W.’s defense lawyer admitted to this “ambivalence” but argued that she “was on the right path.” Indeed, in her final statement, Jennifer W., while crying apologized again for not having done anything to prevent Reda’s death and for her behavior during the first trial. Jennifer W. declared that she now understood that, maybe for the first time in her life, she must take responsibility for her actions. At the same time, Jennifer W. still seemed to partly blame her inaction on her husband’s aggressive nature. Jennifer W. also said she was “misunderstood” when criticized for not showing strong emotions in public and cited her mental stress.
Bringing German ISIS Members to Justice
Jennifer W.’s verdict is not yet legally binding, but it is unlikely that the decision will be appealed again. If confirmed, the final sentence of 14 years would be the longest sentence ever handed to either a female or male returnee in Germany. Partly, this is due to the difficulties in accessing usable evidence in these complex trials. Only few German male returnees have been charged with core international crimes, and as of August 2023, none have been charged with crimes against the Yazidi minority. This is also due to the fact that the German government has repatriated all women and minors willing to return, while at least 37 male fighters with a connection to Germany remain detained in Northeast Syria. Without a roadmap for their repatriation, these men remain unlawfully detained and are not held accountable for their crimes either in Syria or in Germany.
When Jennifer W. received her verdict, her face was petrified. For her, the hard work will start once she is transferred to regular detention. There, she can hopefully begin to really reflect upon her crimes and work on understanding the motivations that led her to join a terrorist organization and disregard basic human instincts.