A panel of three judges who heard the case of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militant Neil Christopher Prakash in Turkey handed down a reduced sentence for the Australian recruiter and facilitator for ISIL, setting his release for 2021.
Judges at Turkey’s Kilis High Criminal Court ruled for a six-year sentence for the US and UN-designated terrorist, also known as Abu Khaled al-Cambodi, deciding on a near minimum for membership in a terrorist organization, then increasing it to nine years before slashing it by one-sixth and settling on seven years, six months. The judges stated that a long sentence could have a negative impact on his future and used their discretion in reducing his sentence.
The judges’ decision to reduce his sentence was based on Article 62 of the Turkish Penal Code, also known as Law No. 5237, which was passed by the legislature in 2004. The provision includes grounds for discretionary mitigation in sentencing, listed as “background, social relations, the behavior of the offender after the commission of the crime and during the trial, and the potential effects of the penalty on the future of the offender.”
Twenty-seven-year-old Prakash faced between seven-and-a-half and 15 years. His lawyer Reşat Devran had been stating throughout the trial that he expected his client to get the minimum if a jail sentence were to be imposed, although he said he was trying to get an acquittal on all charges.
What is more, Prakash was not sentenced for any terrorist act while he was with ISIL in Syria and Iraq, nor was he convicted for being a lead figure in the organization, which would have qualified him for a heavier sentence on other violations of the Turkish Penal Code. He pleaded guilty to the membership charges but denied involvement in any terrorism act during a hearing held on February 20, 2018. It appears this dangerous terrorist benefitted from the permissive political environment in Turkey, where the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been helping ISIL, al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Given the probation rules in the Turkish criminal justice system, he is eligible for early release in two-and-a-half years, meaning that he will be a free man in 2021. This stands in sharp contrast to heavy sentences including life in prison handed down to Turkey’s leading journalists who were jailed by the Erdoğan government over their comments, tweets and op-eds. In the criminal justice system, most radical terrorists including al-Qaeda and ISIL militants have been let go, either with no charges or reduced sentences thanks to the current Islamist government in Turkey.
Small wonder Prakash asked for his trial to be conducted in Turkey and did not want to be extradited to Australia to face charges. The Turkish court rejected the Australian government’s extradition request in July 2018. Prakash was believed to be a key figure in inspiring terrorist plots in Australia and has been linked by the FBI to a failed plot to attack the Statue of Liberty in New York.
In his testimony to the court at a September 2018 hearing, Prakash admitted that he originally joined the jihadist Ahrar al-Sham, which was openly backed by Turkey for years, and said he later switched to ISIL. He crossed into Syria from Turkey’s border town of Reyhanlı in October 2013.
He claimed he had never used a gun, went to Syria to educate himself on religious teachings and was involved with humanitarian work for three years in Syria. He also stated that he was not paid for his work and ran media operations for ISIL. Asked about his photos in army fatigues with guns that were on his phone, Prakash explained he was told that he needed such photos to be accepted into ISIL. He operated in Idlib, Raqqa and Mosul, cities that were under ISIL control at the time.
He was detained by border guards near the village of İnanlı in the border province of Kilis while trying to cross into Turkey from Syria on October 24, 2016 with a fake identity. The area on the Syrian side across from Turkish village was controlled by ISIL at the time. He was formally arrested at his arraignment and sent to the Gaziantep H type Prison. Two women identified as Rumana Bibi and Fadxiya Ahmed were making the journey with Prakash when they were detained. Both women were released. During a hearing on December 20, 2018, Prakash testified in broken Turkish that he knew the husbands of the women, and the court tried to locate them to testify as witnesses after their release. Expressing regret in the courtroom, Prakash claimed he had defected from ISIL, repented for his sins and did not understand why he was put in pre-trial detention.
In December 2018 the Australian government announced that Prakash had been stripped of his citizenship on terrorism charges and stated that he was a dual Australian-Fijian national. However Fiji rejected the claim he was a citizen. Prakash was born in Melbourne to a Fijian father and a Cambodian mother. At a February 20, 2019 hearing in Turkey the judges told him that his Australian citizenship had been revoked and asked whether he had any knowledge of that. Prakesh responded in Turkish and said he was aware of it.