In Iraq, executions rise as deadly attacks escalate

The government reacts to roiling violence in Iraq by accelerating executions, despite worries confessions are coerced

Confessions are routinely broadcast on Iraqi state television, despite criticism they affect the question of a suspect's innocence before trial, and are possibly forced.

There’s a certain prison in the northeastern Baghdad district of Kadhimiyah, Iraq, where the Tigris River makes a sharp bend before it winds its way through the rest of the city. It’s where men and women who are sentenced to death wait to die.

When Saddam Hussein ruled the country, people sent to the prison disappeared, never to be heard from again. Allegations from hidden informants condemned those delivered there to torture, secret detention and a shadowy fate. Their families would never know what became of them, or even why they were taken in the first place.

After the U.S.-led military invasion ousted Saddam from power in 2003, American civilian advisers, legal experts and billions of dollars marked for training streamed into the country alongside the tens of thousands of coalition soldiers. They put the death penalty on hold. A significant part of the money the U.S. government sent to Iraq was earmarked for training and directives to imbue courts, the judiciary and police with more democratic and transparent processes.

But a little over a year after it was suspended, the death penalty was reinstated by the new Shiite-led central government. A year later, in 2005, the executions, usually by hanging, resumed.

Since then, around 500 people have been executed, according to records kept by human rights observers including Amnesty International. During the first four months of this year alone at least 50 people were hanged.

The executions have drawn the ire of the United Nations and other human rights observers, not only because they appear to coincide with a greater number of violent incidents against the Iraqi people themselves (as the frequency of deadly attacks accelerates, so too does the number of hangings), but because the judicial process that sends people to the gallows is itself deeply flawed, and shows little sign of changing.

‘The Master of the Evidence’

When she called on the Iraqi government to issue an immediate moratorium on the death penalty last year, United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said she was stunned at the number of offenses for which people can be put to death. There are around 48 crimes that are eligible, including, under certain circumstances, damage to public property.

Following the execution of 34 people, including two women, on Jan. 19, 2012, Navi said in a news release, “Given the lack of transparency in court proceedings, major concerns about due process and fairness of trials, and the very wide range of offenses for which the death penalty can be imposed in Iraq, it is a truly shocking figure.”

“Most disturbingly, we do not have a single report of anyone on death row being pardoned, despite the fact that there are well documented cases of confessions being extracted under duress.”

Responding to Navi Pillay’s condemnation, Iraqi parliamentarian Izzat al-Shabandar said, “This statement means nothing to us. The people that have been executed are criminals. The timing of the executions is up to the judiciary and the government authorities, and they [the U.N.] don’t have the right to interfere in our internal issues.”

When the U.S. and its coalition first endeavored to establish and train a new Iraqi security force and judiciary free of the totalitarian dictates of Saddam Hussein and his regime, among the recommendations was, “Train all judges and prosecutors on internationally recognized standards of human rights, as well as judicial and prosecutorial ethics.” Another was, “Deny the use of confessions obtained under torture, even if corroborated by other information.”

Yet “police throughout [Iraq] continued to use abusive and coerced confessions as methods of investigations,” the State Department cites in its latest report, adding, “Credible accounts of abuse and torture during arrest and investigation, in pretrial detention, and after conviction, particularly by police and army were common.” The State Department says former prisoners, detainees and human rights groups detail methods including “stress positions, beatings, broken fingers, electric shocks, suffocation, burning, removal of fingernails, suspension from the ceiling, overextending the spine, beatings on the soles of the feet with plastic and metal rods, forcing victims to drink large quantities of water then preventing urination, sexual assault, denial of medical treatment, and death threats.”

Confessions have long been a deliberate element in Iraqi justice, both before and after Saddam’s rule. The justice system, based largely on Islamic and tribal tradition, has always placed the importance of confessions above other types of considered evidence. Here, it’s called the Master of the Evidence, similar to the Latin phrase Confession est regina probationum, or “Confession is the queen of proofs,” which justified the use of forced confessions during the Middle Ages.

Tariq Harb, a judge in Baghdad, says the country’s system is similar to other Arab countries that use Islam’s holy Quran as the basis for its laws. “All its rules and articles are largely derived from Islamic jurisprudence and Arab 19th-, 20th-century modern laws from Egypt and Lebanon,” he told Al Jazeera.

Instead of a trial by jury, defendants face a panel of three judges. In its 2012 report on human rights in Iraq, the U.S. State Department reported, “Many defendants met their lawyers for the first time during the initial hearing and had limited access to legal counsel during pre-trial detention.” It added, “Allegations that defendants were subjected to coerced confessions and compelled to confess guilt were common.”

Confessions have also become a political tool for the Iraqi government, which frequently airs interviews with suspects admitting to crimes — from running cells with alleged militant ties, raping women or men, kidnapping and torturing people, or organizing attacks on Iraqi security forces — on state-run television. There are dozens of videos on YouTube showing people confessing to crimes that were broadcast on Iraqi television.

Many have been convicted under a terrorism law the Iraqi parliament passed in 2005, which approves the death sentence not only for those convicted of committing terrorist acts, but also those who “finance, provoke, plan or enable such acts.” The law also offers amnesty and anonymity to secret informers who report such activities. The U.N. Human Rights Council report says those reports “have contributed to the detention of thousands of Iraqis ... and many have been wrongly executed.”

The report also says detainees are tortured to confess their crimes, confessions they retract once they appear in court. However, because of its importance in the Iraqi judicial process, the confession is often used to demonstrate guilt, and a death sentence is quickly issued.

The uncle in Wichita

Musadik Mahdi knows only that his nephew, Osama Mahdi, is being held at the prison in Kadhmiya. He has no idea if Osama has been executed, or if a date has been set.

“They sent him to his death for something he didn’t do, and the trial is so bogus,” says Mahdi, an aerospace engineer who has lived in Wichita, Kan., for 20 years and in the United States for more than 40 years. “It’s as though they’re sending a sheep or cow to death; the whole system is so corrupt.”

Mahdi’s 32-year-old nephew, an oil technician, was convicted of planting a bomb in a car belonging to an Iraqi army officer and killing him. The crime happened in late 2008, but Osama wasn’t arrested until January 2010.

His nephew was arrested, Musadik Mahdi told Al Jazeera, “because someone [the Iraqi police] tortured in prison told them Osama killed the officer.”

Mahdi provided medical documentation to Al Jazeera listing physical marks on his body that were “not normal.” Mahdi is less vague: “There were 20 marks on his body; they broke his jaw, broke his nose during the torture.”

His trial, in October 2011, lasted less than a day.

Osama Mahdi also had an alibi. His boss and another co-worker appeared in court to testify that there was no way he could have committed the crime because he was at work. They claimed they even had his punch card to prove it.

There were no witnesses testifying against Osama, his uncle says, only a secret informant. “The interesting part is, if you read the court papers … the court is saying there is no eyewitness. There’s no DNA; nobody heard or said something.”

Mahdi, trying to monitor the proceedings from his home in Kansas, has been pushing his state senator and local congressman to take action. The State Department and the American Embassy in Baghdad have been informed and have attempted to advocate on Osama’s behalf. “I pushed them a little bit; I said, ‘You put this government in Iraq, you tried to make democracy in Iraq and you tried to bring this country to the civilized world, so I’m sure you have some authority and influence,’” he recalls. “They are trying to help, but they don’t say exactly what they are trying to do.”

He recently received word from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad confirming that Osama Mahdi had been transferred to Kadhimiya Prison, and that, according to the letter provided to Al Jazeera, “his capital punishment sentence was validated by the court prior to his transfer.” While he is set for execution, the letter continues, embassy contacts “believe, however, that it is possible that he could be granted amnesty through a Presidential Decree. Unfortunately at this time it is impossible to say with any certainty.”

That Osama’s fate is tied to the Iraqi government’s political fortunes is clear to Musadik Mahdi. “Because they have so much resistance to the government, they tried to basically make people an example — we have to send someone [to be executed], regardless of who did it. The poor guy was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The Saudi national

“I do think there is an absolute correlation that shows this relationship, completely void of any recourse,” says Akhtar Raja, a British lawyer practicing in London, specifically on human rights laws. “Every time [there’s an attack] the political imperative is to show that something has been done in response — you have waves of people being hanged who’ve not had a chance to fight a legal case.”

One of Raja’s current cases is that of Saudi national Abdulla Qahtani, also on death row in Kadhimiya Prison. Qahtani’s situation, while questionable, is pretty straightforward, says Raja.

“[Qahtani] entered Iraq foolishly [from Saudi Arabia], was planning to move to Europe and claim asylum, but was brought to Iraq by some people first. He was rounded up initially by American forces, and held by them for many months before his release,” Raja recounts. Qahtani was then arrested again, this time by Iraqi authorities, for not having the right immigration papers. He came into the custody of the infamous Brigade 56, Raja claims. While Qahtani was in custody, an armed robbery and murder occurred outside in the city. Yet this did not dissuade Iraqi security officers from trying to get him to confess to the crimes.

“They proceeded to torture him horrifically and extracted a confession and got him to implicate himself in the murder and armed robbery, which physically he couldn’t have done; then he was made to broadcast the confession on television twice. When in court, the first opportunity he had, he withdrew the confession.” Raja says he himself saw the evidence of torture when he met with Qahtani during a 90-minute visit in February this year. “I saw signs of injuries, what looked like cigarette burns, scars on his ankles and his torso,” Raja recalls.

Raja says there have been discussions between the Iraqi and Saudi governments that might result in a retrial for Qahtani or a possible prisoner exchange. All these efforts, however, are hampered by the relentless violence in Iraq, and the pressure the Iraqi government faces to be seen to be addressing it.

Raja says the tradition of relying on confessions in court is deeply rooted in the Iraqi psyche. “If you go to Iraq yourself and have this discussion with a range of people, they will all say that’s quite normal and that’s quite acceptable. You even hear this from liberals,” he says. “There’s almost a presumption of guilt.”

The State Department, in its report last year on the human rights situation in Iraq, said corrupt and abusive Iraqi security forces were rarely punished. There were no known court convictions for abuse. “The government did not take widespread action to reform security forces to improve human rights protection,” the report said.

Iraqi authorities can legally detain someone suspected of committing a crime that is punishable by death for “as long as necessary to complete the judicial process,” the report says. “Lengthy detentions without due process and without judicial action were a systemic problem.”

Raja says Qahtani's family have recent disturbing reports from Kadhimiya Prison. "Abdullah's family learnt that he is on hunger strike, for the second time," Raja said, adding that Qahtani has complained of discriminatory treatment. "We have requested for the Red Cross to investigate his condition. Not so long ago he suffered from a liver disease."

Will take years to change

In its October report on the progress achieved by U.S. rule-of-law programs in Iraq, the U.S. special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction (SIGIR) found that the U.S. government spent about $560.3 million to “develop and/or reconstitute the corrections and judicial components” in Iraq.

As late as January 2012 it launched a $1.6 million pre-trial detention program with the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, to train and mentor MOI officials and improve the skills of those working in the country’s detention centers.

According to program officials, soon after they began their work, the Iraqi government decided to ban non-Iraqis from entering and checking on the facilities. The program was shut down six months later after reports of poor treatment of inmates and allegations of abuse and torture. According to the SIGIR report, “a Ministry of Interior official stated he was very pleased with the quality and content of the training.”

Hundreds of Iraqi judicial officers were trained under the many U.S.-funded programs over the years; police investigators and police trainers were also taught how to gather and preserve criminal evidence.

SIGIR concluded that while U.S. assistance has provided the Iraqi government with “a firm basis on which to build a fair and transparent system … it will take generations to change the Iraqi culture and corruption that affect the judicial system.” The security problems that put the judiciary at risk also hamper progress.

“Whether the hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars were used effectively, will be decided by the Government of Iraq and the Iraqi people,” the report concludes.

If the Iraqis do not follow through on all those years of training and guidance, the special inspector general concludes, “the money invested will have been wasted.”

Al Jazeera Baghdad Bureau’s Osama Mohammed contributed reporting to this story. 

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