AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Iraq's antiterrorism laws allow for people to be convicted for helping ISIS even if they weren't involved in battle. And this past weekend, 21 foreign women were sentenced to life in prison for their ties to the group. They're just a handful of 1,400 foreign women and children taken into custody after ISIS was defeated in Mosul earlier this year. But they're also part of a larger wave of counterterrorism court convictions.
To hear more about this, we're joined by NPR's Jane Arraf. She's in Baghdad. And, Jane, I understand you were actually at the courthouse yesterday. What was the scene like?
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Well, it was the Baghdad Central Criminal Court, and the hallways were full of lawyers and people with huge files. And I'm standing outside the courtroom, and all of a sudden all of these women are led into the hallway. They're lined up with their children. And a Russian-Arabic translator arrives. And he gathers them together. And he keeps asking me if they're Russian because the consular officials want to check their names.
So these are young women for the most part. And they're all wearing those black abayas, the cloaks that cover their hair and everything else. And over them they have pink shirts from the prison. And, Audie, there were children everywhere. The youngest of them were in their arms, and some of them were born in jail. The older ones were 3 or 4. And there are even more children, the older ones who were left in the prison while they went to court.
CORNISH: So what are these actual trials like?
ARRAF: Well, they're very quick. It was almost surreal. So the first batch of them lasted less than five minutes each. These women have already been through an investigative court. And in this phase, the judge hears summaries from the prosecution and defense. And then he asks the women if they have anything to say, and he makes a ruling. But the really poignant thing is they came in with their children. One of the first of them was holding a baby in her arms, and her daughter had been left in the hallway. Her daughter was 1 1/2.
And so they let her daughter in as well. And they took the little girl into this - it's a dock, an actual dock, like a wooden cage without a top. And the little girl was clutching her mother's cloak. And she turned around, and she looked at everyone else in the courtroom. And that just kept happening over and over with all of these women. The defense lawyer there had been appointed by the court, and he hadn't even seen the files before that day.
CORNISH: You're talking about these women looking around the courtroom. What did they have to say?
ARRAF: Not a lot. There were some who were asked if they had anything to say, and they didn't say anything. But in another courtroom that I went to with the same charges, the women all described essentially the same thing. They said that they had no control over coming to Iraq or Syria. They said they didn't know if their husbands were ISIS. They said they wore civilian clothes and didn't carry guns. For the most part, their husbands had been killed in airstrikes. And the women said that they just stayed home and took care of the kids. They were young, and they seemed to say that they didn't know what they were getting into.
CORNISH: Can you tell us more about the sentencing? Is the life sentence typical?
ARRAF: Well, a life sentence actually means 20 years in prison in Iraqi terms. And these women - and there are lots and lots of them - are being sentenced to life, or some of them are even being sentenced to death. These ones in the court over the weekend were 17 Russians and a few others. Now, they get an automatic appeal. But if convicted, they stay in prison, and their children stay with them. Now, groups like Human Rights Watch argue that they didn't do anything violent, so they didn't deserve this punishment.
CORNISH: Did you manage to actually talk to any of these women?
ARRAF: A little bit. Very few of them spoke English or Arabic. But I did speak to a young Uzbek woman from Tashkent. And she said she didn't want to be sent back to jail there because there they wouldn't let her cover her hair or read the Quran. She said she hadn't been able to call her mother because she was afraid her mother would be arrested if she did call.
So the thing is, Audie, that Iraq doesn't want to keep them in prison. It's costing them a lot of money. But the problem is there aren't a lot of other countries that want to take them back. So the defense lawyer said to me, what's going to happen to these children? And that of course is the main problem in all of this.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Jane Arraf speaking to us from Baghdad. Jane, thank you.
ARRAF: Thank you.
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