The case of Linda W. the 16-year-old German schoolgirl reportedly associated with “Islamic State” (IS) and captured in Iraq in mid-July, could have far-reaching consequences for how justice systems treat children exploited by armed groups, particularly when they may have committed a crime.

According to media reports, after leaving her home in the East German town of Pulsnitz in July 2016, she travelled to Turkey and then on to Iraq where she is believed to have joined the group in Mosul and married an IS fighter.

Following her arrest by Iraqi authorities she was transferred to a Baghdad detention facility. Footage circulating in the media of Linda, clearly in great distress, being paraded in front of cameras by crowds of shouting Iraqi troops, should raise serious concerns as to her welfare.

The next steps – a possible prosecution in Iraq or extradition to Germany – are not yet clear, but the high-profile nature of her capture raises several legal and child protection questions. Here we outline four of them.

The role of Iraq

Linda W. remains in detention at an army base in Baghdad, arrested as part of a group of female IS supporters (it is unclear if any others are under-18). German authorities have confirmed she has received consular assistance. It is possible German authorities will seek permission to extradite the girl, but when - or if - that will happen is uncertain.

IS membership can carry the death penalty in Iraq, and while international law prohibits children being sentenced to death, Iraq, where 92 death sentences were handed down during a six-week period in 2016, has reportedly brought the charge against children in the past.

As the legal and political wrangling continues, Iraq has an obligation under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to ensure that Linda’s best interest are a primary consideration at all times, and that she be treated in line with human rights standards applicable to children.

International human rights law recognises that due to their immaturity and relative under-development, children alleged to have committed crimes deserve to be treated with special care, taking into account their age, capacity for rehabilitation and lower degree of culpability. Any justice system dealing with children must have their best interests at its heart.

Children can only be detained as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate time, and their cases must be dealt with promptly. They must be held separately from adults, allowed contact with their families, granted access to a lawyer and be able to challenge the legality of their detention. They have an inalienable right not to be tortured or held arbitrarily.

Prospect of prosecution

In our view, all children associated with armed groups are first and foremost victims of child recruitment and use, and no child should ever be prosecuted purely for their association with an armed group.

Iraqi troops have reportedly alleged that Linda was a sniper for IS, but there remains a lack of detail or confirmation on the specifics of her role. On this basis, it is difficult to speculate what form any prosecution may take.

What we do know is that if Linda is extradited to Germany (this could be a drawn-out process though as there is no extradition treaty in place between the two countries), she will not face capital punishment. Under German law, a prison term of between one and ten years can be handed down for someone found guilty of membership with an armed group. 

This is not to say that a child soldier who is suspected of carrying out a crime should never be prosecuted, but any prosecution of a child must be in accordance with juvenile justice standards, taking into account their age, dignity and reintegration needs.

Influence of social media

It is believed that she first made contact with IS online. She is one of an estimated 200 women and girls recruited from Germany by IS; and one of hundreds more girls believed to have travelled from across Europe to IS-controlled territory. 

For some armed groups such as IS, social media has become a key tool to access potential recruits, including children. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Microsoft recently announced the formation of a working group dedicated to removing terrorist content from their platforms. Such initiatives are taking place amid lively public debates on the role of companies and governments in counter-terrorism, internet and media regulation, encrypted communications, access to information, the right to privacy and freedom of expression.

Ultimately though, efforts must go beyond this and seek to address the underlying reasons that lead Linda W., and others like her, to leave their communities and join IS.

Reintegration and rehabilitation

It is not yet known if she will return to Germany, and whether a prison term will follow. Her case brings back into the spotlight much of the debate we have seen around the treatment of children detained for association with armed groups.

Child Soldiers International believes that an inclusive psychosocial approach involving family and community is the best way to reintegrate children formally associated with armed forces or groups.

Only with rehabilitation programmes tailored to the individual experiences and needs of children can we support Linda and others like her, to regain their role in their communities.   

Banner image credit: Raqqa Media Center via Yahoo Creative Commons