In Iraq, it’s difficult to find someone who doesn’t have a ma’doom, a family member who was executed by the government. It is so common that Iraqis routinely mention it to qualify for government jobs, a pay raise, or a political post.
Saddam Hussein’s regime was condemned by international human rights organizations for excessive use of the death penalty, mostly carried out against political opponents and those who participated in the uprising in 1991. For decades, detainees were sentenced to death despite having no access to attorneys or any chance to appeal their sentences. Confessions were mostly extracted by torture, without any adequate investigation.
Citing such practices, human rights groups urged the United States to enact a moratorium on the death penalty after the invasion in early 2003. Two months after entering Baghdad, the Coalition Provisional Authority put the moratorium in place.
The moratorium was suspended in 2004, when the Iraqi interim government reinstated the death penalty for those under the age of 70. The government claimed it was a viable deterrent, in a time when terrorist attacks were on the rise and many Iraqis were still seeking punishment of Saddam Hussein and the men in his regime for their crimes against humanity.
Once the moratorium was lifted, things moved swiftly. In 2005, Parliament passed a terrorism law approving the death sentence not only for those who commit terrorist acts, but also for those who finance, provoke, plan, or enable such acts. Furthermore, the terrorism law offered amnesty and anonymity to al-mukhbir al-sirri, secret informers who report alleged terrorist activities. Those reports contributed to the detention of thousands of Iraqis. This has created a weak judicial process, where many Iraqis are detained and sentenced to death shortly after getting arrested.
By 2007, the number of executions has skyrocketed, making Iraq among the top five countries in the world for executions. In 2011 alone, at least 279 people received the death sentence and another 1,300 were on death row, according to Amnesty International.
Iraq’s government has also received criticism for televising many confessions of those who committed acts of terrorism, which it has been doing. They are heavily advertised to the public and are regularly broadcast on the state-funded TV channel. While the government says these confessions are meant to provide a sense of security and justice, it’s difficult to find out under what conditions those confessions were given. Critics say televising them highly undermines the rule of law and the right to a fair trial.
Detainees are sometimes tortured and forced to confess crimes or terrorist acts during pre-trial interrogations, confessions they later denounce in court. In the period surrounding a televised confession, key political figures, including members of Parliament or the cabinet, often make public statements that can influence the sentences handed to those detainees. In June 2011, the state broadcast confessions by members of an armed group who admitted to murdering a whole wedding party after raping several women and the bride. Members of the armed group received death sentences within a week of the televised confessions, an insufficient time for adequate investigation, proper legal representation or an appeal.
More recently, the same TV channel showed footage of confessions by bodyguards of the current vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi. They admitted to assassinating government officials and committing several other terrorist acts on his behalf. These crimes can be punishable by death sentence under the terrorism law. Only after televising the confessions did the Central Criminal Court issue an arrest warrant for the vice president.
Critics of Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki say this is an example of his abuse of the justice system, which he uses to bring down political opponents. Al-Maliki and his bloc have announced that they are looking to put al-Hashimi through a trial similar to Saddam Hussein’s.
“We provided a fair and clean trial to Saddam, the dictator of Iraq, and we will ensure and be determined to provide a fair trial to Mr. Tariq al-Hashimi,” Al-Maliki said at a news conference.
Such statements politicize the judicial process and diminish its transparency. Since the arrest warrant was issued, al-Hashimi has fled to northern Iraq, the home province of the Iraqi president who has offered al-Hashimi temporary protection.
The increasing pressure by the international community and watch groups on Iraq to abolish the death penalty might finally be working. Last October, members of the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee said they had been discussing new legislation that would abolish the death penalty. Some parliament members, citing security concerns, immediately criticized the initiative.
Yet with a complete U.S. troop withdrawal at the end of last year, and a diminishing political engagement, it will be extremely tough to see those talks about ending the death penalty turn into an actual legislation.