Capital Punishment in Iraq Seen Simply As Death, Not Justice

with Isam Rashid

BAGHDAD – The execution of 13 suspected insurgents in March marked a revival of the death penalty in Iraq – and sparked a debate among Iraqis about whether capital punishment should be written into the laws of a modern society.

The death penalty was suspended by the US when it took control of Iraq 2003. The nation’s new government, however, reinstated it two years later, stating that the death penalty will be a deterrent to criminals in Iraq. Still, many Iraqis on the street say they are not convinced of that argument.

Most Iraqis, war-weary, make no distinction between executions under the newly-elected government and those carried out under Saddam Hussein.

“In Saddam’s time and in all times the death penalty is not good. There is no justice and sometimes innocent people are killed without good reason,” Baghdad resident Omar Abdul Aziz told IPS.

Others favor capital punishment but question how it should be applied – especially to insurgents. “The Iraqi government calls Iraqis who resist the occupation ‘insurgents,’ and this is the problem because they are not insurgents but freedom fighters. We should give them rewards, not use the death penalty against them,” said Zuhair Hasan, a 38 year-old veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, in the 1980s.

The thirteen insurgents hung March 9 allegedly confessed responsibility for many unspecified crimes “which frightened the citizens in Nineveh,” according to al-Iraqiya, Iraq’s state television network. Iraqi authorities declined to elaborate further about the crimes of those who were hanged or their identities. Nor did they give details about their trial. They did, however, release one name; that of Shuqair Farid, a former policeman.

It is unclear how many people were executed during the 30 years of Saddam Hussein’s rule. Hands Off Cain, an Italy-based organization that opposes the death penalty, estimates that Saddam Hussein executed at least 113 individuals in 2003 before the invasion, but that number does not reflect mass murders of large populations.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say they have no accurate estimations of the number of people killed under Saddam’s regime. This is partly due to the widespread use of the death penalty in Kurdish and Shia regions of Iraq after the Gulf War in 1991. There appears to be disagreement between the organizations whether such killings, as well as those carried out through some manner of judicial process, should be counted similarly. Saddam had expanded use of the death penalty in 1994 to cover crimes such as theft, corruption, currency speculation and desertion from the military.

Following the occupation of Baghdad, Gen. Tommy Franks, then-US Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Central Command, suspended the death penalty. It was reinstated in August 2004 by Iraq’s interim government. The hangings in March are believed to be the second executions since Saddam was removed following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Three men were executed in Kut in September 2005, according to an AP report. No further details – including the names of the men, what crimes they were charged with or how they were tried – are available.

Immediately after the March hangings, Amnesty International reiterated its call for a moratorium on executions, and asked the Iraqi government to move towards “full abolition of the death penalty.”

Amnesty officials said reinstatement of the death penalty is partly due “to the continuing spiral of violence in Iraq.” But they added that the death penalty “has never been shown to deter crime more effectively than any other method.”

Iraqis are divided about whether the new government should keep or abolish the death penalty. How they stand depends in part to their personal experience. Baghdad resident Aziz says his father was executed in 1969 because he repeatedly spoke out against the Ba’ath party. Now Aziz continues to oppose the death penalty because he is not convinced the current government is assuring justice is being served, though he conceded that the Koran provides for the death penalty in come cases.

“I hate the death penalty, but I respect Islam’s law, because this law came from our God and our God is always just,” he told IPS. “Islam says we must be sure about any murderer and then we can try him in the Islamic court, and then (the government) can use the death penalty.” But he added that he was not convinced the government has safeguards in place to be totally sure of a crime.

A 28-year-old unemployed Iraqi, Mustafa Rahomi, agreed with Aziz. His uncle, Akram Ahmed was executed in 1984 because he joined the Da’wa party, the current party of now Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

“Al-Da’wa party was not allowed during Saddam’s time, especially during the Iraq-Iran war because this party was based in Iran at that time,” Rahomi said. “My uncle didn’t join this party and his charge was not true but with that they killed him.”

Like Aziz, he appeared to be conflicted with his religious belief that the Koran allows for the death penalty in some cases and the fact that executions by governments do not always appear to be meted out justly. “The death penalty must be the last way to use, because we can imprison (criminals) for a long time.”

Baghdad teacher Ahmed Ali, spoke out unequivocally against capital punishment. “I’ve lived in Iraq all my life and we haven’t seen any government bring justice to Iraq; especially in Saddam’s government and this government under occupation. Because of that, I say don’t use the death penalty because too many Iraqi people killed before were innocent.”

Moreover, people’s experiences with the Iraq-Iran war brought heightened fears of the death penalty.

“I was a soldier in the Iraqi army during the Iraq-Iran war, I was young and I was afraid of the sound of the bombs,” veteran Hasan said. “I always thought about running away from the army especially when I was on the front, but I couldn’t because of the death penalty. There were Special Forces at the front. Their job was to execute anyone trying to run away from the enemy.”

But, he added, “The people who join the (current) resistance want to die, and they don’t care about the death penalty.”