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Activists: Women Accused of Witchcraft Are First Females Beheaded by Islamic State

Human rights activists monitoring Syria's war said Tuesday that two women were beheaded by the Islamic State, a first for the extremists controlling territory in Syria and Iraq.

Kashmiri demonstrators hold up a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a demonstration against Israeli military operations in Gaza, in downtown Srinagar on July 18, 2014. The death toll in Gaza hit 265 as Israel pressed a ground offensive on the 11th day of an assault aimed at stamping out rocket fire, medics said. AFP PHOTO/Tauseef MUSTAFA        (Photo credit should read TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)
Kashmiri demonstrators hold up a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a demonstration against Israeli military operations in Gaza, in downtown Srinagar on July 18, 2014. The death toll in Gaza hit 265 as Israel pressed a ground offensive on the 11th day of an assault aimed at stamping out rocket fire, medics said. AFP PHOTO/Tauseef MUSTAFA (Photo credit should read TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)

Islamic State militants in Syria beheaded two women accused of being witches earlier this week, marking the first time the extremist group has publicly decapitated female civilians.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a United Kingdom-based watchdog group that uses local sources to monitor the war, the two women and their husbands were executed in eastern Deir Ezzor province.

Beheadings are a trademark tactic of the Islamic State and its ideological predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq. The group now controls vast stretches of territory in Syria and Iraq, and over the last year beheaded several kidnapped Western journalists and aid workers, as well as scores of Iraqi military forces and civilians. The carnage is not just limited to the self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria: In April, for example, two groups of Ethiopian men were executed by Islamic State militants in Libya. One group was lined up and shot, and the other lined up and beheaded.

The Islamic State has reportedly committed other atrocities against women, including death by stoning for those accused of adultery and mass rape of women belonging to the Yazidi minority group. This is believed to be the first time the Islamic State has killed women by beheading, although the extremists have decapitated some female Kurdish fighters after they were already slain in battle, Observatory founder Rami Abdel Rahman said Tuesday in an Agence France-Presse report.

Since the start two weeks ago of the holy Islamic month of Ramadan, the Observatory has documented eight cases of militants publicly humiliating those they accuse of breaking the fast before sundown by hanging them from makeshift crucifixes. According to the group, two of those eight cases involved minors. And over the last several weeks, the militants threw men suspected of being gay off the rooftops of buildings in Mosul, Iraq, and in Deir Ezzor, Syria.

The beheadings of the women, which took place Sunday and Monday, were the declared punishment for charges of sorcery and witchcraft. They’re the latest example of the Islamic State’s willingness to use the most gruesome and brutal tactics available to bring civilians to heel under their extreme interpretation of sharia law. No details about the witchcraft charges were immediately available Tuesday.

Photo credit: TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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