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Iraqis’ arrest in Finland highlights difficulties in prosecuting distant crimes

FORSSA, Finland >> War in Syria and Iraq seems distant from the incongruously named Villa Eden Care, a glum former hotel now housing some 300 refugees on the edge of this tidy, snow-swept town of 18,000.

But the single largest atrocity attributed to Islamic State fighters washed right up in this town this month. The local and national police swept in and detained two refugees, 23-year-old twin brothers from Iraq, suspected of shooting 11 people during the massacre of as many as 1,700 unarmed Iraqi army recruits near Tikrit in June 2014.

As hundreds of thousands of refugees have marched their way on to Europe’s agenda this year, so too have fears that past, present and future jihadis are among them.

As security services confront evidence that some of the participants in the Paris attacks of Nov. 13 might have entered Europe via the migrant trail, and as they struggle to assess the threat from thousands of European citizens who have traveled to fight in Syria and then returned home, they are starting to encounter another issue: holding Europeans and non-Europeans to account for killings and other atrocities carried out on the battlefields of the Middle East.

Two recent cases in the northernmost reaches of Europe have highlighted the complexities of pursuing prosecutions in such cases, even when the authorities are aided by the penchant of Islamic State fighters to document their acts on camera.

Jari Raty, who heads the Finnish investigation of the brothers, said the two were suspected in 11 counts of “murder committed with terrorist intent.” The main evidence, he said, is a video showing at least part of the massacre at Camp Speicher, Saddam Hussein’s old palace complex and outside Tikrit that was later used as an U.S. Army base.

In the southern Swedish city of Gothenburg this month, a court handed life sentences to two Swedish nationals found guilty of assisting in the beheading of two civilians in Syria in summer 2013, an act also caught on video. The video was discovered at the home of one of the men, during a routine police search last summer when he was a suspect in a fraud case, according to the prosecutor, Agnetha Hilding Qvarnstrom.

In both cases, assembling evidence is challenging and is hampered by the difficulty or impossibility of contacting witnesses, and the legal process is made that much more knotty by questions about whether accusations involve war crimes, terrorism or crimes subject to national laws.

The Finnish police say the Iraqi brothers implicated in the massacre near Tikrit entered Finland in September, when refugees surged across central and northern Europe. More than 30,000 asylum seekers — many of them Iraqis, since Syrians tend to stop in neighboring Sweden — have arrived this year in Finland, a nation of 5.5 million.

Raty, a detective chief inspector with Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation, said he first got a tip about a month ago to watch the Iraqi men, who were living in Forssa, about 50 miles southwest of Finland’s third-largest city, Tampere.

The police watched the Iraqis for about three weeks, acting on information that came from inside Finland, though not necessarily from Finns, Raty said in an interview at the Tampere police building, where he indicated that the brothers were being held.

In a spare office decorated with three pennants depicting the national flag and police organizations, Raty would say only that police used “tactical and technical means” to determine that they should detain the men.

While the Finnish news media have suggested that the Iraqis fell under suspicion from other refugees after an altercation between Sunni and Shiite Muslims at Villa Eden Care, no one in authority has confirmed this. A woman involved in running the facility declined to comment and no refugees there were willing to discuss the case.

The police told the district court that the twins should be held because of “probable grounds” that they had committed 11 terrorist-related killings.

Raty declined to give any details about the video, except to say that it is the key evidence for holding the Iraqis, and “there is no reason to doubt it is authentic.”

Kaarle Gummerus, a Tampere lawyer representing one of the brothers, said he had not seen the video. His client, he added, insists that he is innocent, and is upset at being held at a facility where he cannot smoke indoors.

Meetings with officials, lawyers, analysts and writers in Tampere, Forssa and the capital, Helsinki, suggested that Finland was weighing carefully how to handle the case. The authorities have offered no explanation as to why the Iraqi brothers came to Finland, but appear to suspect they may have been trying to flee prosecution by the Iraqi authorities.

One major question is whether, if Iraq requests extradition, Finland would even consider, as a member of the European Union, sending the pair to a country with the death penalty.

The only trial held so far in Iraq in connection with the Camp Speicher massacre was in July and lasted just one day. Death sentences were handed down for 24 of the 28 defendants. The defendants appeared in a court in a giant cage, with relatives of the victims bursting in to hurl insults and objects at them. The sentences have not been carried out, and all the convicted men are appealing.

In the case in Finland, there is another wrinkle: Rumors abound that they are identical, although neither Raty nor others involved in the case would confirm this. If so, it could prove close to impossible to prove which of them appears at points on the video or whether both of them do. The two appeared to be of slight build when they made their brief appearance in court on Dec. 11, their faces concealed under dark jackets pulled over their heads.

The Finnish authorities say they are proceeding cautiously as they try to work their way through the legal issues that come from trying to prosecute an act that took place in the chaos of the Middle East in a European justice system.

“Looking at what is happening in the world today,” Raty said. “It is very possible that in future there might be another of these kinds of incidents.”

So the police must take extra care on this case, he said, even as they navigate entirely new legal territory.

Gathering evidence is difficult at best, said Jarkko Sipila, head of crime reporting for MTV3, the Finnish channel that first reported the Iraqis’ arrests on Dec. 10.

“The main point is that these crimes happened in a place where the Finnish police has no access,” said Sipila, who is also a well-known crime novelist here.

In the Swedish case, the prosecutor, Hilding Qvarnstrom, said the videos used to convict the two men were found on a USB stick in the home of one of the defendants, Al-Amin Sultan.

Both he and the other man, Hassan al-Mandlawi, had traveled to Syria in spring 2013.

Sultan returned to Sweden later that year, while al-Mandlawi returned in early 2014, after being wounded in Syria and treated in Turkey, Hilding Qvarnstrom said.

Sultan’s lawyer, Mia Sandros, said her client denied that he was present at the beheading and would appeal.

Al-Mandlawi’s lawyer, Lars Salkola, said his client, who uses a wheelchair, had been unfit to stand trial and should be freed on appeal.

“He doesn’t remember anything from one moment to the next,” he said.

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