Appropriation of household appliances by IS members not a war crime

Published: 25 June 2020 Author: Stefan Talmon

On 5 July 2019, the Higher Regional Court of Stuttgart sentenced the German national Sabine Ulrike Sch. to five years in prison for, inter alia, war crimes against property. Sabine Ulrike Sch. left Germany in December 2013 to join the foreign terrorist organisation “Islamic State” (IS). She travelled to Syria, where she married a higher-ranking IS fighter she had not previously known in a ceremony performed in accordance with Islamic rites. In March 2014, she moved with her husband into a house in Manbij which had been seized by IS after the rightful occupants had fled, and which was under the control of IS. When the two moved into the house in Manbij they were provided with new household appliances, which came from a factory plundered by IS. In June or July 2014, they then moved into a furnished flat in the centre of Raqqa. This property had also been seized by IS after the rightful occupants had been expelled, or they had fled from the organisation. After her husband was killed in fighting in early December 2016, she was to be married again. In September 2017, Sabine Ulrike Sch. was captured by Kurdish forces along with the wives of other IS fighters. She returned to Germany in April 2018 and was arrested on 26 April 2018.

On 20 December 2018, the Federal Prosecutor General brought charges against Sabine Ulrike Sch. for war crimes against property under section 9(1) of the German Code of Crimes against International Law (“CCAIL”) which reads as follows:

“Anyone who, in the context of an international or non-international armed conflict, loots or, unless imperatively demanded by the necessities of the armed conflict, extensively destroys, appropriates or seizes by other means and contrary to international law property of the adverse party, that is subject to the authority of his own party, incurs a penalty of imprisonment for a term of between one year and 10 years.”

The Higher Regional Court of Stuttgart convicted Sabine Ulrike Sch. of having extensively appropriated property of the adverse party contrary to international law, stating:

“By taking possession with her ‘husband’ of the house made available to them by the IS in Manbij in mid-March 2014 and the apartment made available to them by the IS in Raqqa in mid-May 2014, in both cases together with all inventory, the accused committed in both cases a war crime against property […].

By taking possession of the house and the apartment, including all inventory, the accused extensively appropriated property; whereas the four household appliances for furnishing the house assigned to them in Manbij, which the accused and her ‘husband’ accepted when they moved into the house in Manbij, neither had a high economic value, nor affected the existential conditions of life of those affected, and therefore did not have any serious consequences for them.”

While it is often difficult to establish that returnees from Syria and Iraq, especially female supporters of IS, were members of the terrorist organisation or were personally involved in war crimes against persons, war crimes against property are easier to prove. IS fighters and their families had to live somewhere, and often they lived in houses and apartments of persons that were forced to flee the IS troops, or they used objects left behind by those forced to flee. Once the Federal Court of Justice had established that objects did not need to be seized by the accused themselves but that it was sufficient that they were willingly using objects allocated to them by the IS authorities, the way was open to convict relatives of IS fighters for war crimes. The only limiting element in section 9(1) CCAIL is the requirement of “extensiveness” which applies to the last three alternatives – destruction, appropriation and seizure – but not to looting. Without this limitation, the use of any object left behind by persons forced to flee the enemy could amount to a war crime, which would not be in line with the limitation of international criminal law “to the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole”.

Category: International criminal law

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Author

  • Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public Law, Public International Law and European Union Law, and Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and practices as a Barrister from Twenty Essex, London. He is the editor of GPIL.

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