(Abu Dhabi) - Iraq's process of excluding candidates from the country's national parliamentary elections on vague, arbitrary, and secret grounds violates the principles of a free and fair election, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should immediately suspend the election body responsible, allow the candidates to participate in the election, and revise the law that allows for unfair and arbitrary exclusion of candidates, Human Rights Watch said.

Earlier this month, the Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice disqualified more than 500 candidates for the planned March parliamentary elections, apparently including several prominent Sunni politicians, causing a political crisis.

"The commission has undermined faith in the electoral process at a time when there is already tremendous sectarian tension and a serious risk of a renewed Sunni election boycott," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Excluding candidates in a secretive process based on unclear criteria ensures that the election will be neither fair nor free."

The Commission revealed that it had disqualified 511 candidates but did not provide even a minimal level of transparency about its decision-making process, most significantly the evidence on which it has disqualified candidates for their alleged Ba'athist connections. The Commission also did not list all the barred candidates or set out the exact criteria it has used to bar them.

"We documented atrocities under Ba'ath Party rule, and support Iraq's efforts to hold those responsible for these crimes accountable and to bar them from public service," Whitson said, "But we do not support the use of vague and secret powers to keep the government's political opponents from participating in an election."

While the Commission has not published an official list of the barred candidates, it reportedly includes Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni lawmaker who took part in drafting Iraq's Constitution, and Abdul-Kader al-Obeidi, the defense minister. It has also reportedly disqualified large numbers of candidates from secular groups expected to fare well in the election against Shi'ite-led parties that have governed Iraq since 2005. The Commission apparently targeted candidates from the two largest secular coalitions, barring 72 from Iraqiya and 67 from Iraq Unity. Barred candidates have only three days to appeal the decision.

"The government's next steps will be crucial to salvaging the credibility of these elections," Whitson said. "It needs to reinstate the candidates and suspend the Commission immediately and then revamp the law, establishing clear standards for disqualifying candidates and requiring the Commission to produce evidence against those it seeks to ban, so they can challenge its decisions."

The legal authority under which the Commission has the right to disqualify candidates is opaque; in January 2008, the Iraqi parliament passed a new law establishing the commission as the successor to the de-Baathification committee created after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in 2003. The 2008 law requires that Parliament approve commissioners, which it has yet to do.

On January 22, 2010, President Jalal Talabani questioned the legality of the Commission's disqualifications, asking the Supreme Court for a ruling. Even if the Supreme Court overturns the Commission's decision, though, this episode highlights the significant and fundamental problems with the Commission's enabling legislation, Human Rights Watch said. Furthermore, the Supreme Court is unlikely to rule in time for the candidates to campaign in advance of the elections and for their names to appear on the ballots.

As with previous de-Ba'athification procedures, the 2008 law effectively maintains the principle of punishment on the basis of group affiliation, rather than individual actions or qualifications. It fails to provide those dismissed the right to see and challenge the evidence against them. Furthermore, the risk of more politically motivated mass dismissals remains great because the law does not establish the commission as an independent body made up of individuals chosen on the basis of competence and integrity.

As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Iraq is obligated to allow its citizens equal opportunity to compete as candidates in an election, without being subject to "unreasonable restrictions." The Covenant requires elections to guarantee the "free expression of the will of the electors."