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Alleged Islamic State fighter faces Dutch war crimes charges

Oussama Achraf Akhlafa went on trial after posing with a crucified body and sharing images of dead victims online
The police agency Europol says some 5,000 Europeans went to fight in Syria and Iraq (AFP)

An alleged Dutch-born Islamic State (IS) fighter went on trial in the Netherlands on Monday for war crimes in Iraq and Syria, including breaches of the Geneva Conventions, after posing with a crucified body and sharing images of dead victims online.

In the first trial of its kind in the Netherlands, Oussama Achraf Akhlafa, 24, is alleged to have joined IS in Mosul in Iraq, and Raqqa in Syria, between 2014 and 2016.

Akhlafa is being tried under so-called universal jurisdiction, which enables war crimes to be prosecuted regardless of where they were committed.

He is charged with breaking international law on the rules of armed conflict by violating the personal dignity of war victims, as well as membership in a terrorist organisation.

There is no international tribunal to prosecute widespread atrocities during Syria's civil war which began on 2011, but prosecutors in several European countries have put on trial nationals who joined militant groups in the Middle East.

According to European police agency Europol, some 5,000 Europeans — most from Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands — went to fight in Syria and Iraq, of whom some 1,500 have returned.

'I would be seen as disloyal'

Prosecutors said Akhlafa posed next to the crucified body of a man on a wooden cross and distributed pictures of an IS militant holding the head of a dead Kurdish fighter, and the body of a dead woman with a foot on her.

In a statement, Akhlafa said he joined IS after becoming homeless in the Netherlands, but never hurt anyone, the Reuters news agency reported.

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"If I didn't get in the photo I would be seen as disloyal" by IS, he told the court. 

"I posed in the photo. I take all responsibility for that. I am sorry and it was not my intent to humiliate this man.

"I understand it creates an image, but madame, I didn't kill anyone... IS wouldn't even give me a weapon."

The judge read out witness testimony and quotes from online chats with the defendant in which he bragged about killings and said he was a sniper. 

"Sniping is the funnest thing there is, but it is highly dangerous," the judge quoted him as writing.

The defendant said his remark was intended to impress women.

'I went to Syria to help people'

A second defendant, 24-year-old Reda Nidalha, also went on trial on Monday, accused of membership in a terrorist organisation and recruiting members via Facebook.

Dutch-born Nidalha was questioned by judges for hours at the opening of hearings on Monday.

He denied allegations of recruiting, saying he had been joking when he chatted on Facebook about friends joining him in Raqqa, the self-declared capital of IS's former "caliphate".

"In 2014, I went to Syria to help people, women and children," he told a panel of judges. "I didn't join to fight. I provided basic medical assistance."

Nidalha said he could not explain how his family obtained photos of him wearing army fatigues and posing with weapons.

In Syria, he said he received first aid training, not weapons training, and then helped emergency medical teams collecting the dead and wounded from the battlefield.

Nidalha denied accusations of trying to recruit four people for IS, saying the Facebooks chats were "not serious".