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by Srabani Roy

Iraq's Reinstated Death Penalty Raises Deep Moral Questions

(IPS) -- International human rights organizations are increasingly worried about the recent rise in executions and people sentenced to death in Iraq.

The United Nations and human rights groups received reports late last month that 10 or more men belonging to the radical Kurdish Islamist group Ansar al-Islam, accused of kidnappings and killings, were executed by hanging in Arbil, a city in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

According to the UN and Amnesty International, these were the first known executions in the Kurdish region since restrictions on the use of capital punishment were lifted there, and the first since 1992. There are other unconfirmed reports of 27 men hanged in Baghdad for attacks against civilians, according to an AI statement in September.

"Death penalty killings are of great concern to us," Zahir Janmohamed, advocacy director for AI's Middle East and North Africa division, told IPS. "They fall under our overall concern about the judicial system and allegations of torture in Iraq."

The UN Secretary-General's Special Representative to Iraq, Ashraf Qazi, issued a statement expressing "deep concern" about the number of people executed and on death row, and urged the Iraqi government to commute all its death penalty sentences and "base its quest for justice on the protection and promotion of the right to life."

Since August 2004, when the then interim Iraqi government reinstated capital punishment, 150 to 200 people have been sentenced to death. Though exact numbers are unavailable, more than 50 people are thought to have been executed since then, according to reports received by the UN.

The UN Commission on Human Rights and other human rights organizations, including AI and Human Rights Watch, universally condemn the death penalty and have called on all governments to abolish capital punishment or at least place a moratorium on death sentences.

When contacted, the Iraq government's mission to the UN said that the government had no official response to Qazi's statement and there were no immediate plans to issue one.

Although Amnesty International does not have a field presence in Iraq due to security concerns, the organization does monitor human rights abuses in other countries in the region. It also receives reports of violations within the legal system in Iraq, which Janmohamed described as being "very flawed."

The lack of transparency and of access to detention centers in the country have made it very difficult for human rights groups to ascertain precise numbers and conditions for those sentenced to death in Iraq, Janmohamed said. Reports of abuse and executions often emerge several months, sometimes up to six months, after the fact, he added.

During Saddam Hussein's regime mass executions were widespread. The government sentenced its citizens to death for a variety of reasons, ranging from petty crime to political opposition to Hussein's Baath Party.

In 2003, after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the death penalty was suspended. In 2004, however, the interim government reinstated capital punishment for crimes such as murder, rape, kidnapping and drug trafficking. The law also allows execution for crimes such as financing or carrying out terrorist activities.

"Iraq falls under the same pattern as Yemen or Jordan," Janmohamed said. "In Yemen, all the recent executions have been in the name of the war on terror."

According to Amnesty International, in 2005, 24 people were executed in Yemen and 11 in Jordan. Janmohamed speculated that as the Iraqi government felt more pressure from the United States to reign in suspected terrorists, it was sentencing and executing more people, without proper and full due process. It is also unclear how long people are on death row before being executed.

Despite several attempts, IPS was unable to reach anyone from the U.S. State Department for comment on these speculations.

"From the information we're getting, it's dubious that those sentenced to death are getting fair trials," agreed Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division in Washington D.C., which also monitors the situation in Iraq and other countries in the region. "It's an emergency situation and I assume the government feels perpetrators of violent crime can be curtailed by executions. We certainly don't agree with that."

However, Ayub Nuri, an Iraqi journalist who works for Hawlati and Awene, two independent Kurdish newspapers, admits that though his paper has not carried out any extensive public opinion surveys, his coverage of the war in various parts Iraq, as well as extensive interviews he's conducted, have convinced him that the majority of people in the country favoured capital punishment. This was particularly true after the fall of Saddam Hussein, when people wanted him killed for his crimes, he said.

But, Nuri believes most people support the death penalty only after suspects are provided a fair trial. Nuri, who is from the Kurdish north, thinks that it is unlikely that the men killed in Arbil -- who he said were "forced to confess on state-sponsored television" -- received a fair trial.

"In Iraq, because the legal system isn't functioning, I don't believe anyone is getting a fair trial," Nuri told IPS, expressing his personal opinion. "And I worry that innocent people are getting executed."

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Albion Monitor   October 11, 2006   (

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