(Tunis) – The Tunisian authorities should promptly investigate allegations that Tunisian combatants have committed war crimes in Iraq and Syria. On June 13, 2014, a man calling himself Abu Hamza al-Mouhamadi, and identifying himself as Tunisian, posted on his now-closed Facebook page three videos and associated photographs apparently showing his role in the abuse and ultimate execution of five detained Iraqi border guards.

Tunisia, a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) since 2011, should enact legislation on war crimes, integrate the ICC statute into national law, and take urgent measures to investigate and prosecute Tunisians implicated in abuses amounting to war crimes or crimes against humanity in Syria or Iraq, Human Rights Watch said. On June 24, the Minister of Interior, Lotfi Ben Jeddou, said in a press conference that at least 2400 Tunisian jihadists are fighting in Syria, most of them fighting with Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“The videos posted on Facebook that appear to show a Tunisian fighter involved in killing Iraqi border guards is a wake-up call to Tunisian authorities to investigate and prosecute any war crimes by Tunisian nationals in Iraq and Syria,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “When a Tunisian extremist so brazenly boasts of his crimes online, the authorities should send a clear and unequivocal message to all Tunisians that they won’t tolerate such conduct.”

In the first posted video, Abu Hamza al-Mouhamadi, which appears to be his nom de guerre, is seen interrogating the five detained guards, and slapping them. In a second video, he orders the detained men to pledge allegiance to ISIS, and denounce the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki. When one of the captured men refuses to repeat the words “The State of Islam Forever,” Abu Hamza is videotaped pushing him down on his back and putting the gun to his throat and repeating his demand.

The video does not show the execution but, in a third video, Abu Hamza shows the victim’s identity card on camera and asks the other captured men whether the victim was Shi’a. When the other detainees confirm the man was Shi’a, Abu Hamza says “Praise be to god,” and says the man’s name, and the camera shows the victim, shot in the face.

Other Facebook posts on Abu Hamza’s page show several pictures of the same sequence of events, appearing to show that the other four men were also executed. One photo shows Abu Hamza with a Kalashnikov behind the five detained men sitting on the ground. A second picture shows Abu Hamza in front of the men, with one of the detainees executed. A third picture shows the remaining four detainees executed, with their blood on the ground, showing their hands tied behind their backs.

In posting the execution pictures, Abu Hamza comments: “These are photos of some of the “rafidah,” [a derogatory word for Shi’a], that we captured in our attack against a military convoy of ‘Haliki’ [an ironic reference to Maliki] in Tal Safouk in Iraq.”

On June 17, commenting on a CNN report about his implication in the killing of the five Shi’a men, Abu Hamza wrote on his Facebook page “.... [CNN] say what you want. Next time I will slaughter a Rafidh and if America intervenes in Iraq or the Levant then, god willing, I will slaughter an American and will make him speak in Arabic and say the State of Islam is forever.”

On June 17, an international journalist spoke with the widow of one of the victims. According to information the journalist provided to Human Rights Watch, the widow said that her husband, a father of three, worked at the Khana Sor border crossing between Iraq and Syria, and that the families had not been able to recover the men’s bodies.

Facebook officials closed Abu Hamza’s Facebook page for violation of its terms of use, but Human Rights Watch preserved the videos and a pdf format of the Facebook page.

While their exact number is not known, many Tunisians have joined the fighting in Syria and Iraq, some of them with extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. On June 24, the Minister of Interior, Lotfi Ben Jeddou, said in a press conference that at least 2400 Tunisian jihadists are fighting in Syria, most of them fighting with Al Nusra Front and the ISIS.

In early February, Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said that the government has prevented  more than 8,000 Tunisian men from traveling to Syria to fight.

Other reports describe the involvement of Tunisian fighters in ISIS attacks in Iraq. According to media reports, an ISIS suicide assault team, including a Tunisian fighter, stormed a government complex in the city of Samarra in March. ISIS identified one of the members of the suicide assault team as “Abu Anas al Tunisi.”

Human Rights Watch has previously documented serious crimes committed by the Nusra Front and ISIS in other areas of Iraq and Syria, including car and suicide bomb attacks in civilian areas, summary executions, torture in detention, discrimination against women, hostage taking, recruitment of child soldiers, and destruction of religious property. Human Rights Watch has found that some of these acts may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Tunisia should take urgent measures to investigate and prosecute Tunisian nationals and anyone in its territory implicated in abuses amounting to war crimes or crimes against humanity in Syria and Iraq. As a member of the ICC and a state party to the Geneva Conventions and its additional Protocols, Tunisia has the obligation to carry out their provisions.

Tunisia should in particular investigate any case in which there is evidence that a person killed someone who had surrendered and was not taking an active part in the fighting. Tunisia has not yet incorporated into Tunisian law the provisions of the Geneva Conventions and its additional protocols. Nor has it adopted implementing legislation for the Rome Statute.

Human Rights Watch noted that people responsible for international crimes in Syria and Iraq, such as torture, war crimes, or crimes against humanity, may travel to neighboring countries or other countries in the future. Most of these countries have obligations under international law to investigate or prosecute all or some of these serious crimes under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction.

Human Rights Watch has called on the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC as the forum most capable of effectively investigating and prosecuting those bearing the greatest responsibility for abuses there. Iraq is not a party to the Rome Statute, the treaty establishing the ICC. As a result, the ICC can only obtain jurisdiction over crimes there if the Security Council refers the situation to the court, or Iraq voluntarily accepts ICC jurisdiction. 

“Foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq have been prominent among those implicated in executions, suicide bombings, and other similarly serious crimes against civilians,” Houry said. “Urgent international efforts are needed to ensure that any fighter who commits a war crime is brought to justice.