Death sentences raise questions about Iraqi justice

Problems of torture, illegal detention and extrajudicial killings have been passed down from one administration to another.
Sunday 08/04/2018
Cuffs are seen in front of cells housing Islamic state members at a counter-terrorism prison in Sulaymaniyah. (Reuters)
A labyrinth of challenges. Cuffs are seen in front of cells housing Islamic state members at a counter-terrorism prison in Sulaymaniyah. (Reuters)

The mention of the notorious Abu Ghraib prison brings up searing memories that critics say mirror the moral bankruptcy and convulsive violence exercised by local governments and interventionists in Iraq. Comparing today’s context of torture, critics add, to the decrepit and lurid acts that US troops performed on Iraqi inmates renders Abu Ghraib a breeze.

Four months following the Iraqi government’s victory announcement against the Islamic State (ISIS), prison cells and hovels are filling fast with suspected ISIS fighters, sympathisers and alleged operatives whose fast-track death sentences one month ahead of elections are raising eyebrows.

Human rights organisations accuse Iraq of conducting sham trials and accepting forced confessions as evidence to demonstrate guilt in Iraqi courts.

Damning evidence reported by the Associated Press in the form of spreadsheets that catalogue the names of almost 28,000 terror suspects was used to calculate stupefying numbers of inmates held on terror charges. The running total, AP concluded, stands at 19,000 — almost half of whom (8,861) were arrested in 2013. Those assigned the death sentence number about 3,000.

The intelligence arm of Iraq’s Interior Ministry was mentioned for detaining 11,000 suspects. The depth of Iran’s reach into ministerial ranks, however, casts doubt on the ministry’s judicial autonomy and its foremost priority — hunting down “suspected” elements belonging to the former Saddam regime.

At the highest levels of power, fast-tracked death sentences, enhanced interrogation and outright barbarity in the form of torture have been condoned as policies necessary to rid Iraq from terrorism.

In 2007, British officers mistakenly stormed the office of an Iraqi government intelligence agency, uncovering 30 prisoners that, contrary to tip-offs, were not al-Qaeda operatives and whose bodies bore fresh markings of torture.

As a leading pro-death penalty proponent, former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki expressed great outrage about the actions of the British government but no remorse over the dirty secret Britain’s raid revealed.

AP’s findings, therefore, force a re-examination of Iraq’s legal proceedings and court verdicts, among other problems, to smash the wall of silence keeping international criticism of Iraq’s procedural posture in handling political prisoners at bay.

Death sentences act as an expression of power, especially when built around the normative judgments of presiding judges, agents or secret informants whose identities the government claims to protect.

Among the tallest barriers in the way of reform is the government’s zero-tolerance strategy of officials who oppose death sentences. Coercive strategies by a coalition of cross-party MPs in 2015 forced Iraq’s acting President Fuad Masum to renege on his refusal to ratify 100 death sentences in 2015.

Liberation has only amplified the problem. Sweeping arrests have become particularly rife in areas freed three years since the incursion of the Islamic State (ISIS), Amnesty International’s Iraq campaigner and researcher Razaw Salihy said by phone from Beirut, pointing to a line of actors — Iraqi, Kurdish and Popular Mobilisation Forces.

Quarantined prisoners are held anywhere between “15 days to 3 or 5 months” and exceedingly high numbers “were taken and never seen again” Salihy said.

“We had people held on death row in Nasiriyah for 12 years and 8 years, totally forgotten,” she said with reference to the city’s infamous prison facility.

The picture that emerges is one of legal indeterminacy over the status and identity of those held captive.

The issue of disappeared persons, Salihy said, was a problem that came up in almost every camp across the nine governorates in which Amnesty International conducted field research. The missing are “usually of fighting age,” she said, “as young as 13 in Nineveh and some as young as 9 from Anbar.”

Salihy recalled accounts in which families saw their men separated, “marched away and fired at.”

It seems that what can be gleaned from the AP’s report is an impartial picture; obscured by the thousands of men unaccounted for. True figures are expected to rival those AP uncovered.

While the death penalty offers a temporary fix from the government’s perspective, it does not ease the problem of ballooning prison populations that the government is wrestling with.

“Access,” another problem Salihy highlights, “is not granted [by the federalist government] for terrorism-related offences” on the basis that it “affects the integrity of the investigation.”

Overcrowding, as Fadhel Gharwari, a member of Iraq’s parliament-appointed human rights commission, told AP, could be resolved through the appointment of more investigators. Lack of resources, as Salihy has noted  “is no excuse.”

As numbers swell, the trickier control of large prison populations becomes, as the tale of Camp Bucca that spawned the earliest ISIS recruits lives to tell. Inmate-led recruitment in that facility, which housed upward of 20,000 detainees, was an outcome that was detectable from the onset of their incarceration. Many fear that conditions that allow for a repeat of those mistakes are being nurtured by incompetence and an over-reliance on death penalties.

US Coast Guard Lieutenant-Commander Vasilios Tasikas wrote in 2009 that “100,000 detainees have passed through American-run detention centres in Iraq since the inception of the war” but lessons are waiting to be learned.

In 2009, 14,000 detainees languished in US-managed prisons, having fallen from 26,000 in 2007, at the height of Iraq’s sectarian conflict.

Like an infectious disease, numbers rise. Pressure from bodies such as Amnesty International has shown promising results in which prisoners who have not faced trial were released.

Problems of torture, illegal detention and extrajudicial killings have been passed down from one administration to another and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has demonstrated neither the will nor ability to bring each to an end.

Reform, when promised but unrealised, can be read as a cruel joke to those who suffer directly beneath it, when pro-death advocates remain undisputed wielders of power.

Many say they are not asking for leniency but are calling for justice to be non-negotiable.