Saturday 16 January 2021

Syrian fighter who joined Western-backed rebel group cleared of terrorism


A man who travelled to Syria to join a rebel group fighting against IS has been cleared on appeal of being a member of a terrorist organisation.

Driss M. was originally jailed for three years for fighting with the Levant Front, which was part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Public prosecutor Roger Lambrichts admitted it was the first case to be brought against ‘a suspect who claims to have fought against IS’.

The FSA was supported by western governments including the Netherlands in the early stages of the conflict, when M. was in Syrla. His lawyer Yasar Özdemir said it was inexplicable that his client had been jailed for fighting on the side backed by the Dutch state.

‘As a citizen you are entitled to trust the actions of the Dutch government,’ said Özdemir.

Terrorists or moderates?

The prosecution service classed Levant Front as a terror group even though the Dutch foreign affairs ministry regarded it as ‘moderate’. The group switched allegiances during the war to the more hardline Al-Nusra and Ahrar Al-Sham.

Dutch courts have branded the latter a terrorist organisation, but M. returned to the Netherlands in 2015, before Levant Front fused with Ahrar Al-Sham. Lambrichts said Levant Front had set up sharia courts and committed war crimes, including summary executions of children, gay people and adulterers.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that M. has given wildly conflicting statements about his personal role in the conflict. Initially he claimed to have trained as a sniper and killed more than 20 IS fighters with a Dragonov rifle. However, he later said he had exaggerated his story to gain attention.

‘The case is unique,’ said Özdemir. ‘There is absolutely no evidence he fought there. The only evidence is his own statement, which is somewhat chaotic.’

M. said he had been ‘playing games’ with prosecutors. ‘I thought that if I said I’d killed 21 Is fighters, the Dutch state would give me a medal. It was braggadocio to profit from the situation: “I’m a hero.”‘

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