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The First Yezidi Genocide Conviction: A Long-Awaited Spark of Justice

A Yezidi woman prays on the sacred grounds of Lalish. —Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for US Holocaust Memorial Museum

By Sareta Ashraph

A German court handed down the first conviction for genocide for an ISIL member’s crimes against Iraq’s Yezidi community. Last week’s ruling, coming seven years after the initial attack, highlights both the possibility of justice and the profound, enduring consequences of the genocide against the Yezidis.

On November 30, in a court in Frankfurt, judges delivered the verdict on the 29-year-old accused, Taha A-J: guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide and sentenced to life imprisonment. This followed the conviction in Munich earlier this year of his German wife, Jennifer W., for crimes against humanity .

Naomi Kikoler, Director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, observed solace and celebration in this first measure of justice. She emphasized that the conviction “is a testament to the work of the Yezidi community, and notably the survivors, many of them women who themselves suffered unimaginable sustained physical and sexual violence and who witnessed the execution of their fathers, husbands, and sons.”

During the course of a 19-month trial, the horrific allegations were laid bare. In the summer of 2015, Taha A-J, a member of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh) was reported to have purchased a Yezidi woman, Nora B., and her five-year-old daughter, Reda, in Syria and to have taken them to his house in Fallujah in ISIL-controlled Iraq. Nora B. and Reda were among the thousands of Yezidi women and children who had been abducted by ISIL during the group’s attack on Sinjar in August 2014.

Taja A-J and Jennifer W. kept Nora B. and Reda captive as slaves and exposed them to inhuman living conditions. He was accused of beating them repeatedly. To punish five-year-old Reda, Taha A-J was accused of chaining her outside in 120-degree heat, which led to her death. He was convicted of both the enslavement of Nora B. and Reda and causing Reda’s death.

Nora B., gave harrowing evidence in court. The United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da'esh/ISIL (UNITAD) supported German prosecutors by directing its Iraq-based investigations to confirm that documentation—proffered in court by the defence—indicating the deceased Yezidi girl had survived was fraudulent. 

The German court’s written judgment won’t be available for at least another six months, at which point the legal reasoning underpinning the genocide conviction will be made clear.  However, applying the definition of genocide from the 1948 Convention, the court presumably concluded that Taha A-J had committed one or more of the five acts that can constitute genocide (most likely “killing members of the group” and/or “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group”) and that he committed these acts “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part” the Yezidi religious group.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum was the first institution to publish a legal analysis finding that ISIL had committed the crime of the genocide against the Yezidi community in Iraq. This finding, in the 2015 Bearing Witness report, "Our Generation is Gone": The Islamic State's Targeting of Iraqi Minorities in Ninewa, was followed by similar findings, independently reached by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria in its 2016 report, by then-Secretary of State John Kerry in 2016, and by UNITAD in its presentation to the UN Security Council in 2021.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum welcomes the conviction of Taha A-J for the crime of genocide, the first recognition in a court of the profundity of ISIL’s attempt to eradicate the Yezidi religious minority. It is hopefully the first of many such prosecutions, conducted in line with due process.

Yezidis and other religious minorities in Iraq remain in danger. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Early Warning Project places Iraq as 15th highest risk among 162 countries of a new mass killing occurring in 2021 or 2022.

Many Yezidis remain displaced, living in tented camps. While desiring a return to Sinjar, there is little security or economic opportunity available to them there. The impact of being from a disputed region, with successive governments failing to provide educational and employment opportunities to the people of Sinjar, is now being most keenly felt by the survivors of the Yezidi genocide. Furthermore, with thousands of Yezidi men and older boys missing or dead, Yezidi women and girls in particular face a precarious existence in a society that has not encouraged their independence, nor given many of them the tools to live autonomously.

Justice for the Yezidi genocide should entail additional prosecutions of individual perpetrators, timely responses to survivors’ immediate needs, and efforts to prevent any future recurrence of the kind of atrocities that Nora B., Reda and the Yezidi community have already suffered.