High-Profile Cases Highlight Need for Judicial Reform
On October 22, 2014, Baghdad’s Central Criminal Court sentenced Rasha al-Husseini, a secretary to former Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, to death on terrorism charges. The court’s judgment appears to be based entirely on al-Husseini’s confession. Her lawyers allege that security forces psychologically and physically tortured her. On November 23, the same court sentenced Ahmed al-Alwani, a former parliament member, to death on murder charges. Family members told Human Rights Watch they saw torture marks on him before his trial.
“Iraq’s judiciary is still handing down convictions in politicized trials, fraught with legal irregularities,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Despite promises of reform, the government is sitting idly by while Iraq’s terribly flawed justice system sentences people to death on little or no evidence.”
Security forces arrested al-Husseini and about a dozen other Hashimi staff members in late December 2011. In March 2012, Human Rights Watch reported evidence that several of them had been tortured. One, a bodyguard named Amir Sarbut Zaidan al-Batawi, died about three months after his arrest. His body displayed signs of torture, including in several sensitive areas. The government denied the torture allegations and did not investigate.
Al-Husseini’s family told Human Rights Watch that they had complained to the office of Iraq’s president and prime minister about irregularities in her case, including allegations that to force her confession, security forces at the Intelligence Directorate in the Baladiyat neighborhood of Baghdad tortured her with electric shocks, beat her, suspended her from the ceiling, and threatened to rape her, her sisters, and her mother. Rather than investigate the allegations, both offices told the family that the legal system would take care of the case, the family members said. Al-Husseini is in the Kadhimiyya detention facility, awaiting transfer to death row.
Family members said they were only able to visit al-Husseini in detention after paying US$500 to security officers at each visit. Lawyers representing al-Husseini told Human Rights Watch that she told them security officers promised her that if she fabricated information about the former vice president’s alleged terrorist activities, they would release her.
The Iraqi government should investigate the allegations that security forces tortured al-Husseini to coerce her confession, hold accountable security forces suspected of torture, and order a retrial for al-Husseini if such abuses are found, Human Rights Watch said.
On November 25, 2014, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), the international organization of parliaments, released a report calling on Iraqi authorities to provide information on the al-Alwani case and on al-Alwani’s current whereabouts, which the government has not revealed. The report expressed doubt about whether his trial complied with basic due process requirements and fair trial guarantees given the lack of available information on the proceedings. A lawyer for al-Alwani told Human Rights Watch that he was not permitted to see al-Alwani until after security forces had already interrogated him, but would not provide any other details on his detention, interrogation, or trial.
Al-Alwani was charged with murder after security forces stormed his Ramadi compound on December 28, 2013, and fired on him and his family. Security forces alleged that al-Alwani forfeited his parliamentary immunity by firing back at them, killing two soldiers. Al-Alwani denied the charges.
Relatives told Human Rights Watch that security forces required bribes to allow them to visit al-Alwani at the Muthanna Airport Prison by the Counter-Terrorism Service, where he was held. During their visit they saw torture marks on his body, they said. Security forces killed al-Alwani’s brother and five of his bodyguards during the raid. There has been no investigation into the killings or into allegations that security forces tortured al-Alwani, relatives said.
Iraq’s new prime minister, Hayder al-Abadi, has announced reforms aimed at curbing security force abuses and promised to incorporate the Sunni minority into the fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Sunnis have long complained that security forces and the judiciary unfairly target them for abuse.
In a December 9, 2014 interview, Human Rights Minister Mohamed al-Bayati defended Iraq’s use of the death penalty in alleged terrorism cases despite the serious fair trial deficiencies Human Rights Watch documented. They include death penalty cases in which the conviction was based on confessions obtained through torture and secret informant testimony.
International human rights law requires that where the death penalty has not been abolished, it should be imposed only for the most serious crimes and after scrupulous adherence to international fair trial standards. Trials in Iraq often violate these minimum guarantees, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its cruelty and finality, and the fact that trials resulting in death sentences are plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error.
The Iraqi government should order a stay on the executions of al-Husseini and al-Alwani until their allegations of abuse during interrogations have been fully investigated.
“Prime Minister Abadi has promised reform, a positive move,” Stork said. “But he needs to address the widespread abuses and irregularities in a judicial system that routinely fails to address allegations of torture and fair trial violations.”