U.S. Citizen Sentenced To Death In Iraq

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 14, 2006

A U.S. citizen who allegedly orchestrated the kidnapping of three Romanian journalists near Baghdad last year was sentenced to death in an Iraqi court Thursday, prompting his lawyers to ask a federal judge in Washington to block the U.S. military from transferring him to the Iraqi government.

Mohammad Munaf, 53, has been in U.S. custody since May 23, 2005, when he was arrested during a military raid to rescue the Romanian journalists nearly two months after they were snatched. Authorities have alleged that Munaf -- who had ushered the journalists into Iraq and was acting as their guide and translator -- posed as a kidnap victim but was actually involved in a conspiracy for ransom and led them into a trap.

Military officials have said in sworn statements that Munaf confessed to elements of the crime and helped arrange the kidnapping. Munaf has been held at Camp Cropper, where the U.S. military keeps high-value detainees on behalf of Multinational Force-Iraq.

Officials said yesterday that they could not recall another U.S. citizen receiving a death sentence from the Central Criminal Court of Iraq. Munaf was born in Baghdad, received U.S. citizenship in 2000, and moved to Romania in 2001 with his wife and three children, according to court papers. Munaf's attorneys and a spokesman for the Justice Department yesterday confirmed Munaf's sentence.

Lawyers representing Munaf in the United States said that his conviction in the Iraqi court is a farce and that he was not allowed to present evidence or witnesses in his defense. In an emergency motion filed yesterday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Munaf's attorneys asked the U.S. government to intervene and argued that Munaf made incriminating statements only after "threats of violence and sexual assault against him and his family."

Jonathan Hafetz, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's law school, has filed a habeas corpus petition on Munaf's behalf and said U.S. authorities have failed to properly ensure that Munaf's trial in Iraq was fair. He said handing Munaf over to the Iraqi government would mean certain execution without appropriate review of his case.

"The implications are that no matter where a U.S. citizen is taken into custody, there would be no review of their detention," Hafetz said. "If the U.S. is going to hand over a citizen, it must ensure that the trial comports to fundamental fairness."

Justice Department lawyers have argued in court documents that the United States should not step in because the Iraqi government has a right to try people for crimes and that the U.S. military is merely holding Munaf on Iraq's behalf and acting as a multinational force. A Justice Department spokesman said there has been no change in that position.

Munaf's Iraqi attorneys reported that the Central Criminal Court judge was prepared to dismiss the charges at a hearing on Thursday but that two American officials -- including an unnamed general -- stepped into the courtroom and requested a private meeting. The judge returned 15 minutes later and sentenced Munaf and four other defendants to death without hearing additional evidence, according to a sworn statement by Sean Riordan, a legal intern at the Brennan Center who spoke with Munaf's attorney in Baghdad.

"In 36 years practicing law in Iraq, [the lawyer] had never before seen or heard of a death sentence being handed down without deliberation or consideration of the merits," Riordan said in the statement filed in Washington yesterday.

Romanian officials had indicated previously that they did not want to push ahead with charges, according to Munaf's attorneys. They said no Romanian representatives were present at Thursday's hearing.

"The unfairness of Mohammad's trial in Iraq is horrifying, but I am thankful an American court has the ability to protect an American citizen like him," said one of Munaf's family members, who asked not to be identified because of safety concerns. "I have hope and faith that the court will do something to end this nightmare."

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