Thursday 22 August, QAMISHLI, Syria — At a closely guarded prison in this northeastern Syrian town, former Islamic State fighters make papier-mâché models of birds, flowers and trees while serving sentences that typically run two or three years.
Across the border in Iraq, Islamic State detainees are being held in degrading conditions, subjected to torture and often, when brought to trial, given long sentences or the death penalty, according to human rights groups.
The Syrian Kurdish allies of the United States are attempting a different approach. Their goal, Kurdish officials say, is to rehabilitate and reintegrate many of the Islamic State fighters in their custody, in hopes of deterring a revival of the militant movement.
The Syrian Kurds’ leftist ideology precludes the death penalty, and their few functioning courts issue light sentences for fighters not found to have committed major crimes. Hundreds more militants have simply been freed in deals with local Arab tribes whose cooperation the Kurds need to maintain.
By acting with leniency, the Kurds hope to break the cycle of revenge that has trapped so much of the region in conflict for decades, said Khaled Barjas Ali, a senior judge in the terrorism courts run by the self-proclaimed Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria.
'If I sentence a man to death, I am spreading hate. We want to give people reasons to trust us,' he said. 'If you take revenge, people will be radicalized. But with reconciliation we are sure we can finish the problem.'
A prison administration official who asked to be identified by her nom de guerre, Haval (Comrade) Abir, said:
'Most only joined the Islamic State because they needed the salary and are not committed to the militants’ ideology. It is our philosophy to give them a chance to start a new life. Maybe a man made a mistake and he joined Daesh, but maybe he’s a victim of his circumstances and he’s repentant'
The Qamishli facility, originally a Syrian government prison, features a visiting hall with glass booths and intercoms, a barber and a dentist clinic. The air-conditioned cells have three-tier bunk beds and televisions tuned to Arabic soap operas.
Two dozen prisoners were attending an art class, where they were painting papier-mâché palm trees in a room crammed with models, some of them elaborate reconstructions of towns and villages that were apparently made by prisoners.
'Here we have learned that the ISIS ideology was wrong,' said a 36-year-old former fighter, who said he had 10 weeks left to serve, in the presence of prison guards. Many prisoners said they were weeks or months away from release, but a handful had been given 20 years, the maximum, because they had been found guilty of planting bombs or killing people, prison officials said.
Editor's comment - I would be a lot more enthusiastic about 'rehabilitation' programs such as this if they actually worked, but they don't. There have been numerous attempts at 'rehabilitation' in Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and they have all failed miserably.
In France, a 'rehabilitation' centre closed after a few weeks as the inmates simply refused to engage with the program. In the opinion of many, the best form of 'rehabilitation' comes in lead form with a .45 calibre and is judiciously applied to the back of the head.