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(Beirut) – Serious questions about whether Iraq’s justice system meets international fair trial standards highlight the urgent need for a moratorium on capital punishment.

The Iraqi authorities executed six prisoners with no prior notice on October 4, 2012, eleven prisoners on October 7, and another six prisoners on October 8. According to a statement released by Justice Ministry officials on October 8, Iraq has executed 23 people convicted of “criminal and terrorist offenses” since October 4, bringing the total as of Monday’s executions to 119 in 2012 and making the country a leading user of the death penalty in the region.

“The Iraqi authorities’ insistence on carrying out this outrageous string of executions, while unwilling to reveal all but the barest of information, underlines the opaque and troubling nature of Iraq’s justice system,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “Rather than executing people, Iraq should focus on reforming its security and judicial systems to protect its citizens from increasing human rights violations.”

Iraqi officials contend, when challenged about the death penalty, that it is rooted in cultural tradition. But the prevalence of unfair trials and torture in detention, particularly in national security and terrorism-related cases, raises serious concerns and makes the lack of transparency in Iraq’s imposition of the death penalty particularly egregious, Human Rights Watch said.

The Justice Ministry provided few details about the people it executed in the first week of October. A statement released that day named only one, Abd al-Rahman Yassin Turky, saying he had been convicted for detonating a car bomb close to the Foreign Ministry in 2009. The ministry’s statement said that another of those executed was one of the prisoners who escaped from Tikrit prison at the end of September, who had been “recently re-apprehended by security forces.” The statement provided no further details on the identities of those executed, saying only that all had been convicted of offenses punishable under the counterterrorism law. The Ministry provided no details about the people executed on October 7, stating only that they had been convicted of terrorism after “carrying out killings and explosions against the Iraqi people.” In a statement released on October 8, the ministry provided the initials of two of those executed, claiming they had been convicted of kidnapping and murder. The other four persons were convicted of terrorism charges, according to the statement, which otherwise gave no identifying information about the people executed on Monday.

“The government should disclose the identities, locations, and status of all prisoners on death row, the crimes for which they have been convicted, the evidence supporting their conviction, and details of any impending executions,” Stork said.

Iraq’s anti-terror law, passed in 2005, mandates the death penalty for “those who commit ... terrorist acts” as well as “those who provoke, plan, finance and all those who enable terrorists to commit these crimes.” These extremely vague definitions allow Iraqi authorities to impose the death penalty arbitrarily by encompassing even peaceful political protests within the vague ambit of “terrorism,” Human Rights Watch said.

In August, Iraqi authorities executed one Saudi and one Syrian detainee, along with 24 Iraqis convicted on charges “related to terrorism.” On October 2, the Saudi Gazette, a regional media outlet, reported that authorities at a Baghdad prison told six foreign nationals they would be executed before Eid Al-Adha, a major Muslim holiday that begins on October 25. Human Rights Watch has been unable to confirm whether any of these prisoners were among the six people executed. The BBC reported that one of the eleven executed on October 7 was an Algerian national.

Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, ratified by Iraq in 1963, consular officers or their authorized representatives “shall have the right to visit a national of the sending State who is in prison, custody or detention, to converse and correspond with him and to arrange for his legal representation.”

Local media outlets reported that a number of foreign nationals remain in Iraqi prisons and that a United Nations official had asked the Justice Minister to provide information about why several prisoners from various countries have recently been executed. Some, charged with crossing into Iraq illegally, have been sentenced to 15 years in prison, the media reports say. Others were sentenced to death after being convicted of terrorism offenses. The government should make public information about the number of foreign detainees in its custody, Human Rights Watch said.

Iraqi law imposes the death penalty for 48 crimes, including a counter-trafficking law passed in April, and several that fall well outside of the international standard that limits the death penalty in countries that retain it to “the most serious crimes.” Authorities rarely announce executions beforehand.

The significant increase in executions so far in 2012 – up from 62 last year – has led some local activists and members of the Iraqi parliament’s Human Rights Committee to speculate whether Iraqi authorities are using executions to clear Iraqi prisons of prisoners who may stand to benefit from a controversial Amnesty Law being debated in Parliament. Justice Minister Hassan al-Shimmari has denied these claims. Human Rights Watch has analyzed several versions of the law, which would provide general amnesty for a broad range of offenders, regardless of their sentences. The law would not pardon those convicted of terrorism, however. The Parliament was scheduled to vote on the law on Monday, but at this writing no information was available as to whether it had passed the law.

International human rights law requires that where the death penalty has not been abolished, it should be imposed only for the most serious crimes and after scrupulous adherence to international fair trial standards, including the rights of the defendant to competent defense counsel, to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and not to be compelled to confess guilt. Trials in Iraq often violate these minimum guarantees, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all countries and in all circumstances because the inherent dignity of the person is inconsistent with the death penalty. This form of punishment is unique in its cruelty and finality, and it is inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error.

The government of Iraq should place an immediate stay on all pending death sentences and issue a public and permanent moratorium on any use of the death penalty or abolish the death penalty by ratifying the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Human Rights Watch said. Iraq should also order a thorough and impartial investigation into the executions that took place this year.

“Iraq has legitimate security concerns but arbitrarily executing prisoners will not make the country safer,” Stork said. “State sanction of executions only adds to violence in the society. If it continues at this rate, Iraq will soon be the third most prolific user of the death penalty in the world.”

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