Stalled death sentences spur debate in Iraq

Following the recent terrorist attacks in Baghdad, Iraqi authorities are under pressure to expedite the execution of terrorism convicts.

al-monitor An empty cell is seen during a media tour arranged by the Iraqi authorities at a prison, known as Camp Honor, inside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, May 17, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen.

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terrorists, terrorism, terror attacks, executions, death penalty, baghdad government, baghdad

Jul 22, 2016

BAGHDAD — The Karrada blast, which killed about 300 Iraqis on July 3, brought attention to the thorny issue of the convicted terrorists who have spent years on death row awaiting execution. Amid popular discontent, the Iraqi government seems unable to resolve the issue of capital punishment, which is associated with the legal system inherited from the former regime.

Under strong political and public pressure, the Iraqi presidency ratified an amendment to the Code of Criminal Procedure on July 7, a full year after its passing in the House of Representatives. The code enters into force as of its publication in the Official Gazette this week.

The law is expected to accelerate the execution process of those convicted of terrorism and will put an end to “the neglect of the blood of the martyrs,” according to Habib Hamza al-Torfi, a member of the parliamentary commission on human rights. He told Al-Monitor, “The delay in the execution of terrorists is encouraging those who are tempted to join terrorist and armed groups.” Torfi criticized the presidency for the delay in approving the executions.

Before the amendment, Criminal Procedure Code 23 of 1971 had stipulated that each person sentenced to death had the right to four appeals. These can delay the process for more than 2½ years. In addition, the committee set up by former President Jalal Talabani requires up to a year and a half in some cases to examine the cases of the convicts.

In August 2015, the Iraqi parliament voted to amend the law and sent it to the presidency for approval, a bureaucratic mechanism that normally takes as little as a few days or weeks.

Torfi expected the presidency’s ratification of the amendment to expedite the execution of terrorists, saying their prolonged stays in prison of several years are costly to the state. “One inmate costs the state about $50 per day at a time when the country is going through a financial crisis and adopting austerity policies.”

The new amendment stipulates the right to one appeal instead of four and provides for the Justice Ministry's implementation of the death penalty within 30 days regardless of whether the president ratifies the sentence.

Notably, in November 2009, the Supreme Judicial Council issued a death sentence for Adel al-Mashhadani, the leader of Sahwa al-Fadel and the most prominent terrorism convict, but the death sentence was not carried out until January 2014, more than five years later.

While the Justice Ministry announced the execution of seven convicts July 5, only two of them turned out to have been convicted of terrorism, while the rest were convicted of other crimes. Also, the ministry had announced the implementation of death sentences for 73 convicts who later turned out not to be convicted of terrorism.

Mohammed al-Okabi, a political analyst close to the Sadrist movement, told Al-Monitor that some of the executed supported the movement but were convicted of premeditated murder, and the movement leaders cannot interfere in purely judicial matters that have already been settled, especially as the leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, is leading a new anti-government protest movement.

Okabi said, “The Sadrist leaders believe that their followers in prisons are mostly sentenced to imprisonment for various terms, and those sentenced to death were convicted of murder, not resisting the occupier.” He mentioned the Sadrists' respect for the Iraqi judicial decisions and ruled out any link between the execution of convicts and the renewal of the Sadrist leader’s call for reform.

It is worth mentioning that the Karrada explosions were followed by a campaign on the part of Iraqi activists and political parties to demand the execution of terrorists. They accused the government of collaborating with terrorist groups and leniency toward those who fled persecution.

An armed faction of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) interfered and threatened to execute terrorists itself. Sheikh Aws al-Khafaji, the commander of the Abu al Fadl al Abbas forces, one of the Shiite PMU factions, revealed in a July 12 statement his intention to go to al-Hout prison in the Dhi Qar province in southern Iraq and his determination to execute terrorists in the presence of the families of martyrs. Khafaji said he informed the justice minister of the matter by telephone. One day later, he appeared on NRT TV and assured the government that no soldier would be attacked. He said that he had pledged to take the families of martyrs to watch the executions.

According to a source from the Supreme Judicial Council who talked to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, al-Hout prison contains about 145 Saudis, most of whom were sentenced to death on charges related to Article 4 of Iraq's Anti-Terrorism Law. The Saudi ambassador to Baghdad, Thamer Sabhan, visited the prison in agreement with Iraqi Justice Minister Haider al-Zamili, causing a stir in political and popular circles.

On a related note, a senior political source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that dozens of officials and Supreme Judicial Council judges received bribes from terrorist groups in exchange for withdrawing or removing evidence from the file of the terrorism convict after requesting a retrial and transfer to another court or another judge, to receive a lighter punishment or get released.

The source said, “In some cases, the bribes were up to half a million dollars and were paid with the knowledge of some of the judges.”

The Supreme Judicial Council is operating within an antiquated system that was established under the monarchy in the early 20th century, unchanged despite the evolution of the executive and legislative branches.

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