Capital Punishment Returns to Iraq

Policemen in Baghdad read a newspaper with a picture of Saddam Hussein, who  frequently executed political dissidents. The interim government revived  capital punishment, possibly so Hussein could be executed if convicted.
Policemen in Baghdad read a newspaper with a picture of Saddam Hussein, who frequently executed political dissidents. The interim government revived capital punishment, possibly so Hussein could be executed if convicted. (By Wathiq Khuzaie -- Getty Images)
By Jonathan Finer and Naseer Nouri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 26, 2005

BAGHDAD -- Three men convicted of murder, rape and kidnapping sat before the judge, awaiting their fates. But first they had to face their victims' seething families.

"They broke his arms. They broke his legs. They took out his eyeballs," one woman said at the hearing Sunday in the city of Kut southeast of Baghdad, describing what the men had done to her son. "Death penalty. I want the death penalty."

A man in the back of the crowded courtroom held a sign that said: "We do not accept any sentence less than death."

Moments later, the spectators got their wish. The three alleged members of the insurgent group known as the Ansar al-Sunna Army were condemned to be hanged "in the next 10 days," according to the sentence imposed by the special criminal court.

In a show of force the government hopes will help quell the insurgency, Iraq will soon carry out its first judicial executions since the fall of President Saddam Hussein. And despite objections raised by some other countries and international human rights groups, the Iraqi public, by most accounts, is welcoming their return.

"Before, the criminals thought that they would go to jail, and a few months later they would be released," said Abu Muhammad, owner of Kuwait Money Exchange Co. "But now, this will stop them."

In Hussein's Iraq, executions were commonly used to suppress political dissent, and 114 different crimes carried the death penalty as a possible sentence. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer, suspended capital punishment, declaring that "the former regime used certain provisions of the penal code as a means of oppression, in violation of internationally acknowledged human rights."

Iraq's interim government revived the death penalty last August for a smaller set of violent crimes, as well as drug trafficking. The decision is believed to have been motivated by the desire to execute Hussein, who is expected to be tried by a special tribunal this summer.

"I am waiting for the day to see Saddam hanged on TV," said Salam Naji, 52, owner of a Baghdad furniture shop. "He is behind all this violence and killings."

Now, the government has pledged to make broader use of the death penalty, as it struggles to put down an insurgency that has taken more than 600 lives in the past month.

"We will carry out the death penalty against those who kill scores of Iraqi people," Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said at a news conference last week. "We will hold the criminals accountable."

But human rights organizations have raised concerns about the Shiite Muslim-led government's use of capital punishment to deter insurgent attacks. In addition, Iraqi security forces, and particularly Interior Ministry commandos, have been accused in recent weeks of summarily executing Sunni Muslim religious leaders.

"We object to the death penalty on principle, and certainly in a country where you have large numbers of people arrested and a high degree of violence," said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch, which is based in New York. In light of Iraq's history of using execution as a political tool, eliminating capital punishment "would certainly be a good way for the Iraqi government to step out from under that particular shadow and distinguish itself," he said.

Britain, which maintains several thousand troops in Iraq, outlawed capital punishment decades ago. Peter Goldsmith, Britain's attorney general, registered his country's objection to Iraq's new policy as recently as Monday morning in a conversation with Iraqi Justice Minister Abdul Hussein Shandal, according to a British official here.

"The U.K. opposes the death penalty in all circumstances and calls upon Iraq to abolish it," said Doug Wilson, legal adviser to the British Embassy in Baghdad.

The U.S. Embassy said in a statement that as a sovereign nation, Iraq could determine its own criminal penalties. "The death penalty is a decision for democratically elected and legally chosen Iraqi authorities," the statement said.

Several Iraqis said they favored the death penalty because it would allow for the execution of Hussein, who has spent the past 17 months at a detention facility believed to be near Baghdad's airport.

The Shiite bloc leading Iraq's new government said last month that if Hussein were convicted, it would oppose any attempt to spare his life. Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari would "fully support" executing Hussein in the event of a conviction, according to his spokesman, Laith Kubba.

The only member of Iraq's government to publicly oppose executing Hussein is President Jalal Talabani, a longtime opponent of capital punishment. He told the BBC in April that he would "go on a holiday" rather than sign an order authorizing Hussein's execution. Because the signatures of his two deputies would suffice, his opposition would not prevent the order from being carried out.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company