Australia Former Australian citizen and ISIS bride Zehra Duman free in Turkey despite 7-year prison sentence

23:11  10 june  2021
23:11  10 june  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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a man wearing sunglasses posing for the camera: Zehra Duman was married three times while in Syria and Iraq, and all three of her husbands died while fighting for IS. (ABC News) © Provided by ABC NEWS Zehra Duman was married three times while in Syria and Iraq, and all three of her husbands died while fighting for IS. (ABC News)

One of Australia's best-known Islamic State brides, former Melbourne woman Zehra Duman, was released from jail in Turkey and is living there with her two young children.

Turkish courts released Duman in November, despite sentencing her only two months earlier to almost seven years in a Turkish jail for being a member of the terrorist group.

Duman was a dual Australian and Turkish national until mid-2019, when the Australian government stripped her of her citizenship over her connections to the Islamic State militant group (IS).

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She became one of the most notorious among the Australian women who lived under IS when, in early 2015, she released a series of social media posts taunting Western governments.

When IS fell in 2019, Duman and her two young children were among about 70 Australian women and children taken to the al-Hawl detention camp in Syria's north-east, where she gave an interview saying she wanted to return to Australia.

The Australian government told Duman, a dual Australian-Turkish national, she had been stripped of her Australian citizenship four months later, via a letter.

"The Minister for Home Affairs has become aware of conduct because of which you, as a national or citizen of a country other than Australia, namely Turkey, have ceased to be an Australian citizen … Specifically, the Minister has become aware that you were in the service of Islamic State outside Australia," the letter stated.

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Soon after, Duman fled al-Hawl with the help of smugglers and was arrested as she entered Turkey. On September 21 last year, a court in the southern Turkish city of Sanliurfa sentenced her to six years and 10 months jail for being a member of ISIS.

However, the ABC has confirmed that she then appeared before a court in another southern Turkish city, Gaziantep, two months later.

During that appearance, the court agreed to release her from custody because she is the only person able to care for her two children, Jarrah and Layla, who are aged under six.

As a result, Duman, 26, is now living on what amounts to parole in an unknown location in Turkey with her children.

The ABC has seen the September court judgment which sentenced Duman to jail. The judgment provides the first in-depth and direct evidence from her about why she went to Syria and what happened to her during her five-and-a-half years living under ISIS.

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Duman's statements to the Turkish court cannot be independently verified by the ABC and it is unclear what Turkish authorities did to verify them.

The judgment reveals that, according to Duman's testimony, she was forced to remarry twice and all three of her husbands were killed in fighting. It also states she was jailed by ISIS for trying to flee the group in early 2017 and that she had her two children to her second and third husbands while in Syria.

Duman widowed by three IS fighters

Duman told the court that she had a difficult early life, marked by her parents' divorce and bouts of depression in her teens.

When she was 14, she briefly dated a boy called Mahmoud Abdullatif, but the relationship fell apart and she didn't speak to him for years.

Duman slowly drifted towards Islam in her later teens and then, in 2014, Abdullatif — a Melbourne party boy turned fundamentalist Islamist who had travelled to Syria to join Islamic State that year — reached out.

"Mahmoud found me and got in touch with me through social media," the court judgment records her as saying.

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"Mahmoud knew that I'm naïve and I had a tough life. Mahmoud told me, 'I'm going to give you a beautiful life.' I believed in Mahmoud."

She slipped away from her family and travelled to Turkey and then Syria in late 2014, aged 19.

She was smuggled into Islamic State territory in Syria by someone called Abu Bakr and placed in one of Islamic State's houses where unmarried women are kept until someone agrees to marry them.

"They took my telephone. They took my passport. I was afraid," Duman said.

After a month, Abdullatif collected her from the house and took her to Raqqa, where they married.

They lived in a compound along with some of Abdullatif's Australian ISIS friends, including infamous Sydney-born ISIS fighter Khaled Sharrouf, known in Syria by his Islamic nickname, Abu Zarqawi.

A month later, in January 2015, Abdullatif was killed in an air strike.

After his death, one of Abdullatif's friends, recorded as Ebuzerkavi in the court document, said she would have to make a difficult choice.

"He told me that he wanted to marry me but I didn't accept it. He gave me a hard time," she said.

"Later on, this person and his family took me to Iraq, to Mosul. After my period of Iddah (mourning) was over, this person told me, 'you either marry me or marry my friend'," Duman said.

Iddah is a waiting period observed by Muslim women after a divorce or the death of their husband, during which they may not remarry.

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Duman chose to marry Ebuzerkavi's friend, whom the document names as Nedol, and fell pregnant to him. Nedol was killed in an airstrike in 2016, she said.

After her second husband's death, Duman returned to Syria, where she gave birth to her first child, Jarrah.

"ISIS left me on the street," she said.

When Jarrah was seven months old, Duman tried to flee ISIS with the help of smugglers but, she told Turkish authorities, they betrayed her and instead returned her to ISIS, who jailed her for trying to flee.

"I was in prison for three months," she told the court.

"They thought I was a spy and wanted to kill me."

Then an Arab-Australian man, whom she called Baran, came to the jail and made her an offer.

"[He] said to me he can have me released from jail but, as a condition, he wanted to marry me," she said.

"Also, I was not to log onto the internet ever again. I accepted it and we got married and I became pregnant. My intention was to run away again."

She gave birth to her second child, Layla, in late 2018 and then in January 2019 Baran, too, was killed in fighting.

By March 2019, Islamic State had fallen and Duman ended up in the al-Hawl detention camp with her two young children.

After her Australian citizenship was cancelled, she paid smugglers to take her to the Turkish border crossing at Tel Abyad in northern Syria, where she was detained by Turkish authorities and eventually convicted of being a "member of an armed terrorist group", a reference to Islamic State.

Turkish criminal courts routinely convict anyone who lived under ISIS for being members of the group — such an accusation does not necessarily mean the person fought for, or played a role in the bureaucracy, of Islamic State, merely that they lived under them.

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The judgment provides no evidence that Duman played an active role with the group. It also records Duman's repeated denials that she had any formal association with ISIS, other than living in areas they controlled.

The judgment also records that Turkish authorities first began investigating Duman just after she left Australia in late 2014, when her family reached out to a distant relation who was a Turkish counter-terrorism officer.

Australian women still at risk

In April last year, Duman mounted a High Court challenge to the validity of the Australian Government's decision to cancel her citizenship. That case has been on hold since October.

The Department of Home Affairs declined to comment on Duman's case citing the stalled High Court case but did say that the Australian citizenship of dual nationals automatically ceased if they "acted inconsistently with their allegiance to Australia, by engaging in terrorism-related conduct, or if they fought for, or were in the service of, a declared terrorist organisation overseas."

Duman's freedom in Turkey stands in stark contrast to the at least 63 Australian women and children who remain trapped in dangerous conditions in detention camps in Syria's north-east, despite their repeated requests to come home to Australia, where some may face lengthy jail terms.

Kamalle Dabboussy, the father of one of the women and three of the children held in Syria, said it concerned him that Duman, whom the Australian government had taken action against, was now free in Turkey, while his relatives and the other Australian women and children who followed the government's advice remain stranded.

"[Duman] is free and it appears the women that the government have less or no concern about are the ones that are being effectively punished."

Duman, a third-generation Australian until the cancellation of her citizenship, is one of about a dozen Australians, including two women, who have had their citizenship stripped since 2015 because of their association with ISIS.

The government has only cancelled the citizenship of dual nationals or people who, the Government alleges, were entitled to citizenship of another nation. People who hold only Australian nationality cannot be stripped of their citizenship because it would render them stateless.

Duman is also only one of several Australians or former Australians who have been captured fleeing Syria and charged by the Turkish government over alleged association with the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.

The ABC has previously revealed the presence in Turkish jails of a Sydney man wanted by the FBI, Mohamed Zuhbi, and Melbourne resident and New Zealand citizen Suhayra Aden.

Several others are also held in Turkish jails, including Melbourne man Neil Prakash, who was captured in Turkey in 2016 after featuring in an Islamic State propaganda video.

Another Australian, Queensland man Agim Ajazi, was deported to Australia in December 2019 by Turkish authorities. It came a month after the Turkish ambassador to Australia called on Canberra to help coordinate the return of Australians held in Turkey on ISIS-related crimes.

Earlier this month, Zuhbi was also returned to Australia by Turkey.

Despite repeated attempts, the ABC was unable to contact Duman's family for comment.

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