Iraq must halt spiralling death sentences

Amnesty International has called on the Iraqi authorities to halt the mounting number of death sentences being handed out in the run-up to delayed national elections in March.

Last week, 11 men were sentenced to death for allegedly committing terrorist acts including truck bombings, and on Sunday Ali Hassan al-Majid – a former senior official under Saddam Hussain known widely as “Chemical Ali” – was sentenced to death for the fourth time.

“The Iraqi authorities have been using the death penalty increasingly in response to the grave security situation that continues to prevail in the country and which has seen numerous murderous attacks on civilians,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“However, this is not the answer. This is further brutalising Iraqi society and the fact that many attacks are carried out by suicide bombers indicates that it is certainly not an effective deterrent.”

Little information about the trial of the 11 is available but in other cases it is known that trials before the Iraqi Central Criminal Court (ICCC) have been woefully inadequate, with defendants being convicted on the basis of confessions that they made allegedly under torture while held incommunicado in pre-trial detention. Many defendants did not even have lawyers of their choice to defend them.

“Trials before the ICCC consistently fall short of international fair trial standards, according to evidence we have previously gathered,” said Malcolm Smart.

In some cases, alleged “confessions” made by defendants have been broadcast on Iraqi state television.

In the wake of the 19 August 2009 Baghdad attack, an Iraqi TV channel showed a video of one of the defendants, Wissam ‘Ali Kadhem Ibrahim, confessing to planning one of the two truck bombings – but there was no indication whether this “confession” was freely given or obtained under duress.

Another court, the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal, sentenced Saddam Hussain’s cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid – or “Chemical Ali” – to death for the fourth time. He was sentenced after being convicted of ordering a gas attack on the town of Halabja, which killed more than 5,600 members of Iraq’s Kurdish minority in 1988.

“The Halabja killings were one of the very gravest crimes committed under Saddam Hussain’s government,” said Malcolm Smart. “We have called since 1988 for those responsible to be held to account. At the same time, we oppose the death penalty in all cases, even those involving the most heinous crimes.”