Iraq's latest surge: state executions
Harsh punishments and a flawed justice system inflame violence in Iraq. Photograph: Sean Smith for the GuardianAnd the trend is headed in the wrong direction. A recent Amnesty International report showed that in 2012, Iraqi executioners killed at least 129 people, almost twice as many as the previous year, putting Iraq in third place among countries using the death penalty (the United States was fifth, with 43).
Iraq's fragile democracy is undermined, not bolstered by a justice system that sentences scores to death on coerced confessions
In the bloody shadow of Iraq's recent surge in violence lurks another troubling statistic: this year, Iraq has executed nearly 70 people accused of terrorist-related activities, including 17 men and women last month alone. Let me be clear, the death penalty should be abolished everywhere, including in the United States. Tragically in Iraq, though, it seems the death penalty has become a key component in Baghdad's counterterrorism strategy.
With reports showing that more than 1,000 people were killed in sectarian and terrorist attacks in July alone, it is easy to understand why Iraqi authorities might seek desperate measures. But violence thrives where justice, due process, and human rights are denied. Continuing that cycle of violence by executing people only serves to further erode confidence in the government's ability to protect its citizens, especially when its own institutions do not live up to their own standards.
Simply put, adherence to the rule of law grounded in human rights principles can help prevent violence. This is especially true for fragile governments that are trying to instil confidence in their core governance responsibilities.
The Iraqi government's struggle with this dilemma is exemplified in its deeply flawed criminal justice system: death sentences are commonplace and human rights abuses and extreme punishments of all kinds are the prevailing norm. In May of last year, the United Nations assistance mission for Iraq expressed "serious reservations about the integrity of the criminal justice system in Iraq, including abuses of due process, convictions based on forced confessions, a weak judiciary, corruption, and trial proceedings that fall short of international standards".
Through its 40-year-old Urgent Action Network, which has helped free anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, students in Syria, and reproductive rights advocates in China, Amnesty International tracks such cases and provides a mechanism to pressure governments around the world to cease executions and uphold fair trials. The Urgent Action Network is seeking to highlight two particularly acute cases in Iraq.
In December 2011, after an unfair trial, Osama Jamal 'Abdallah Mahdi was sentenced to death following a "confession" that was allegedly obtained under torture. There is some indication that the authorities have now transferred this father of two young children to a maximum security prison known for carrying out executions. His fate remains uncertain.
Earlier this year, 22-year-old Abdullah al-Qahtani was mere moments away from being hanged. Abdullah is a Saudi national initially detained in Iraq for immigration violations. Authorities claim that he confessed to the crime of robbing and murdering a local jeweler to fund terrorist activities, but Abdullah's attorneys say they have compelling evidence that this "confession" was coerced through brutal torture. They say that he was actually being detained for immigration violations at the time the robbery and murders are alleged to have taken place.
Through Amnesty's Urgent Action Network, activists around the world have joined Abdullah's cause, sending more than 60,000 letters to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki demanding that Abdullah's life be spared and that he receive a fair trial. He remains alive – for now.
Both Osama's and Abdullah's cases are rife with abuses that point to deep flaws in the Iraqi criminal justice system, and demonstrate how dangerous it is to allow the state the power to inflict a punishment that cannot be undone. After enduring decades of Saddam Hussein's brutal rule, wars, and years of deadly sanctions, the Iraqi people certainly deserve a fair justice system. And Abdullah and Osama deserve better, as well.
A well-trained judiciary, access to transparent justice systems, and mechanisms for due process, indicate a government's commitment to protecting human rights and are crucial building blocks that can reduce vulnerability to all forms of violence. Iraq has a long way to go in securing the basic safety of its residents. Abolishing the death penalty and ensuring that individuals such as Osama and Abdullah are not tortured into confessing to crimes are good places to start.