Unparalleled: massive, systematic use of sexualised violence

Often it is in this room that the witnesses describe their cruel experiences for the very first time. But if the judicial process then takes its course, the women must recount these experiences over and over again in court. Having to repeatedly relive such memories is very difficult for traumatised people. "Not every victim is up to the pressure of testifying in court," says Zorn. The war crimes investigators want to bring the perpetrators to justice, "but not at all costs. Consideration is part of how we see our work," Zorn underlines. The information collected is then used in consultation with the prosecutor only for the purpose of further investigation.

What Zorn and his colleagues find out ends up in the Federal Prosecutor's Office in the south-western city of Karlsruhe, which is responsible for the prosecution of international crimes. Since 2018, a prosecutorial team has been dedicated exclusively to the genocide of the Yazidis. The lawyers there have seen a great deal and heard even more – for example, while investigating the Rwandan genocide and atrocities committed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

International criminal lawyer Lars Berster, Cologne University (photo: DW/M. von-Heim)
Genocide, no question: according to renowned international criminal lawyer Lars Berster the actions of IS against the Yazidis constitute genocide. The decisive factor, he says, is the perpetrators' objective: "They must aim to destroy a national, ethnic or religious group, in whole or in part, and IS' intention to exterminate was very visible"

But according to one of the prosecutors, the massive, systematic use of sexualised violence by IS is unparalleled. Like Zorn, he, too, speaks of the heavy traumas the witnesses have been forced to endure. This is evidenced by the fact that during the interviews many of the women have blacked out or fainted, evidently a self-protection mechanism of the body. He also underlines the cultural and linguistic issues the investigators encounter. "As prosecutors, we are very much concerned with facts and figures; our witnesses are not. There are always problems with times and quantities."

Despite years of investigative work, only one indictment has been filed in Germany so far – against Jennifer W., a German woman accused of having travelled to Iraq to join IS. That trial, taking place in Munich, is the first in the world to deal with the IS extermination campaign against the Yazidis.

There are also two open arrest warrants for leading IS members on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. In addition, the German prosecutors are pursuing preliminary proceedings in several other cases. "In international criminal law you need to persevere," says one of the prosecutors.

This may all sound paltry in comparison to the scale of the crimes. But for the Yazidis, it is enormously important that Germany has even taken up the prosecution, says German-Yazidi journalist Duzen Tekkal. She has spoken to many survivors in both Germany and northern Iraq, who told her: "We do not want to eat or drink. To recover, we need justice."

Matthias von Hein

© Deutsche Welle 2019

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