Wednesday, August 17, 2005

3 Set to Hang as Executions Return to Iraq

New York Times - Three men convicted of dozens of rapes, kidnappings and killings in the southern city of Kut, in one case displaying the eyeballs of an Iraqi soldier to obtain payment for his murder, will be put to death by hanging in the first execution by Iraq's civilian courts since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said Tuesday.

The case against the men, who acted in concert, is one of 34 in which death sentences have been handed down since the death penalty was reinstated in Iraq in August 2004. It is the first case to emerge from a mandatory review by an appeals court and be sent to Mr. Jaafari and a three-member council headed by President Jalal Talabani. The council must approve the execution before it can take place.

The combination of a shaky government eager to show that it is taking steps against terrorism and overwhelming public support for the death penalty here could make the Kut case the first of many executions in Iraq. That could include Mr. Hussein's. He is expected to go on trial within the next two months before a special tribunal for crimes against humanity.

"We know that public opinion is eagerly waiting for this," said Ghadanfar Hamood al-Jasim, the chief general prosecutor of Iraq, of the Kut case, which his office oversaw. "They are in pain and they are waiting for justice to take its course."

That was certainly true of the families of three police officers who were among those killed by the three men, who in May confessed to 63 crimes, an unknown number of them killings.

Mr. Jasim said that beyond the issue of retribution, he believed that the reinstatement of the death penalty would be a deterrent in a country where violence has reached such a high level. "It will help stabilize the security situation," he said.

But human rights organizations immediately questioned that assertion, as well as the motives of the Jaafari government in announcing the executions so soon after the embarrassing political debacle of Monday night, in which negotiators failed to agree on a new Iraqi constitution and the National Assembly hastily voted to extend the talks for a week just minutes before the government would have been dissolved.

Human rights advocates say that Iraq's legal system is often too flimsy to be fair. Beatings and other abuses are routinely used to produce confessions. Defendants see their lawyers rarely, or not at all, before trial. Judges are often under tremendous pressure to impose the death penalty. And, eager to strike back at insurgent attackers, Iraqi security forces have cast wide nets to round up suspects, increasing the risk that innocents will be put to death.

"There are too many things that can go wrong," said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East Division for the group Human Rights Watch in Washington, D.C.

Immediate questions have arisen in the Kut trial, where at least three family members identified the defendants by saying that they had seen at least some of them confess to the killings on television. Mr. Jasim acknowledged that the Interior Ministry, over Justice Ministry objections, regularly puts defendants on a popular television program that shows criminals confessing to crimes before trial, often with visible bruises on their faces.

Mr. Jasim said that once the defendants are on trial, they always repudiate their televised confessions, and judges are obliged to ignore what they have seen outside the courtroom. "We don't consider that as evidence," Mr. Jasim said.

The death penalty has enormous resonance in Iraq, where Mr. Hussein set up special courts to issue death sentences with no appeal. The executions were generally carried out at the clanging metal gallows of Abu Ghraib prison. Iraqi law still specifies that the death penalty is carried out by hanging for civilians and firing squad for soldiers, said Jaafar Nasser Hussain, an Iraqi Supreme Court justice.

After the 2003 invasion, the death penalty was suspended by the American-led administration in Iraq. But in August 2004, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi reinstated it.