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Punish the Victim? Iraqi Teenage Girl Imprisoned for Her Role in an Attempted Suicide Bombing

Amidst what appears to be a confusion of evidence and a disregard for both the pressures faced by girls sold into marriage and the inherently dual victim-perpetrator status of children in conflict situations, Rania Ibrahim, a 16-year-old Iraqi teenage girl, has been sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for an attempted suicide bombing. Rania was discovered wearing an explosives vest when she was 15. U.S. Army reports state that she turned herself in, and police and media accounts suggest both that she might have been drugged and that her husband’s relatives had forced the explosives onto her. A juvenile court in Iraq recently handed down her sentence one year after the arrest.

There are several disturbing features of Rania’s case. The first is what appears to be the failing of the juvenile court that tried her to consider exonerating evidence, such as the testimony of U.S. officials that she had turned herself in and the statement of at least one Iraqi police officer that she had been drugged. Both pieces of evidence seem to indicate her non-compliance in the bombing attempt. A video of her confession and reports of her trial reveal Rania’s insistence that female relatives of her husband had strapped the explosives to her and instructed her in how to use them. Additionally, the U.S. military had previously stated that Rania was an “unwilling suicide bomber” who had been either tricked or forced into the attempted attack. Major Ghalib al-Karkhi, a provincial police spokesman, reported that the court ignored these facts and Rania’s testimony and focused instead on the fact that she had been in possession of the explosives. It appears that the court thus entirely disregarded her defense.

The other disturbing facet of Rania’s case is the court’s seeming indifference for her position within her family, society, and Iraq’s conflict, and of the international human rights law relevant to this position. Rania received schooling only up until the age of 11 and had been sold into marriage 5 months prior to the attempted suicide bombing. Her youth, education level, the fact that she was forced into marriage, and women’s unequal position within Iraqi society, marriage and family must be taken into account both when assessing the evidence and determining her level of responsibility and culpability. Her relative lack of power based on education, gender, and age lend support to the evidence indicating that she was forced or tricked into the bombing attempt. Rania’s status as a child forced into marriage should also be given considerable weight. International human rights law, such as that embodied in the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women, opposes child marriage because it interferes with the rights of a child to obtain the highest levels of physical and mental health, to education, and to control over her or his sexual reproduction. The court’s refusal to consider Rania’s vulnerability to manipulation at the hands of her family demonstrates complacency to the plight of child brides and gender-based discrimination.

An added dimension of Rania’s case is the complex position that child combatants occupy. It is not clear that Rania should be considered as a combatant or a war criminal, as Human Rights Watch would have us classify suicide bombers, because there is evidence that she was used in this role rather than having assumed it herself. Her age alone renders her ability to choose the role of combatant suspect. While international law does not expressly prohibit the prosecution of children considered to have committed war crimes, the Paris Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups states that children accused of such crimes should be considered primarily as victims rather than perpetrators, given that the recruitment of children for conflict violates their rights and causes them immense harm. The Paris Principles give special attention to the added stigma and danger faced by female child combatants.

All of these dimensions of Rania’s particular situation, together with the evidence that she was forced to carry the bombs against her will, should have been taken into account by the court. This could have been an opportunity for a court to recognize the overlapping vulnerabilities faced by someone in Rania’s position. Instead, it appears that they have sentenced her for being a victim.  As such, Rania’s sentence will do nothing to end the use of children in suicide bombings or improve the security of Iraq, and is likely a violation of her human rights.



Jessica Corsi

Jessica Corsi has expertise in international law, international politics, and civil society organizing. She will obtain her J.D. from Harvard Law School in May 2010; holds an LL.M. (International Law) from the University of Cambridge; and a B.S. (International Politics) from Georgetown University. She has worked for the United Nations and NGOs in the fields of international human rights law, international public health, women's human rights, transitional justice, international criminal law, and international humanitarian law. She has lived in Mexico, Cambodia, India, Switzerland, England, and Belgium, and is originally from the United States. Jessica contributes to the human rights blog.