(Beirut) – Iraq’s parliament should turn down a proposal to allow the justice minister, rather than the president, to ratify execution orders.

On June 15, 2015, Justice Minister Haider al-Zamili said that Iraq’s extraordinary security situation required the speedier application of the death penalty. But criminal procedures in Iraqi courts, including in death penalty cases, fall short of international fair trial standards. Judges have repeatedly admitted allegedly coerced confessions as evidence without investigation and have not allowed the accused to have qualified legal counsel. The proposed amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code would add to the concerns about how Iraq handles these cases.

“Speeding up executions by further reducing safeguards for defendants will put more innocent lives at risk,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Iraq should combat violence by Islamic State insurgents with fair and transparent trials that deliver justice, not expedited executions based on torture-tainted confessions.”

People shout slogans while holding placards, banners and national flags, during a demonstration asking for the release of Sunni lawmaker Ahmed al-Alwani in Ramadi, Iraq on January 25, 2014.

© 2014 Reuters

The proposed change, which Iraq’s cabinet approved on June 16, 2015, would no longer require the president to ratify executions. Instead, the justice minister could ratify the sentence if the president didn’t act within 30 days of a final Court of Cassation verdict to ratify the sentence, issue clemency or a pardon, or commute the sentence.

Iraq’s criminal justice system, and in particular its counterterrorism law, is highly problematic. The counterterrorism law of 2005 mandates the death penalty for vague and not necessarily lethal acts, such as “threats which aim to bring about fear among people.” Iraq’s constitution also prohibits clemency or a pardon in terrorism cases, in violation of international human rights norms that grant a person sentenced to death the right to seek clemency, pardon, or commutation of sentence at any time.

In 2013, Iraq executed 177 people, the highest number since the United States occupation administration suspended executions from 2003 until mid-2004. In 2014, Iraq remained the fourth country worldwide in the number of executions, after China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. On July 15, 2014, Iraq established a second execution site in Nasiriyah prison, in addition to an existing one in Baghdad’s maximum security facility.

In a recent case, Nasiriya’s Serious Crimes Court on April 30 sentenced Mohamed Medini, a Tunisian, to death on terrorism charges. Medini’s mother, Saliha, told Human Rights Watch that the conviction was based on a confession obtained under torture from her son in 2008, but that a medical record of three days he spent in hospital as a result of the abuse “disappeared from his case file.” Hanan al-Rawi, an Iraqi lawyer who was assisting a defendant in a separate case at the same court on April 30, confirmed to Human Rights Watch that Medini did not have a lawyer present during his conviction and sentencing.

Among high-profile cases has been the sentencing of Rasha al-Husseini, a secretary to former Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, to death on terrorism charges on October 22 by Baghdad’s Central Criminal Court. The court’s judgment appeared to have been based entirely on al-Husseini’s confession, though her lawyers allege that security forces psychologically and physically tortured her.

On November 23, the same court sentenced Ahmed al-Alwani, a former parliament member, to death on murder charges. Family members told Human Rights Watch they saw marks on him allegedly caused by torture before his trial, which the judge apparently dismissed.

In its response to its last review in 2010 by the United Nations Human Rights Council, Iraq agreed to “[i]ncrease its efforts at eradicating torture” and to “consider inadmissible the confessions obtained under torture or ill treatment.” But a February 15 joint report by the UN Assistance Mission to Iraq (UNAMI) and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on judicial responses to torture allegations found that “In all cases the presiding judge failed to order any investigation into the torture allegations and did not question the defendant further about the matter.”

These findings are consistent with a 2014 Human Rights Watch investigation of the treatment of women by Iraqi security and judicial authorities. The investigation concluded that Iraq’s weak judiciary, plagued by corruption, frequently bases convictions on coerced confessions, and that trial proceedings fall far short of international standards.

Iraq also broadcasts on television “confessions” by people it claims were arrested on terrorism charges, before a trial has begun. Such confessions undermine the premise that defendants are innocent until proven guilty.

In an October 2014 report on the death penalty in Iraq, UNAMI noted that, in addition to failing to investigate torture allegations for confessions that were the sole evidence for the charge:

[P]ersons accused of serious crimes carrying the death penalty often only have lawyers representing them when the Court appoints one to act on their behalf, usually on the day of the trial and with no reasonable time granted by the Court to prepare a defense. UNAMI has observed that court appointed defense lawyers rarely intervene during the trial – their only intervention often being a plea for leniency after conviction and during the sentencing proceedings before the Court.

Iraqi law imposes the death penalty for 48 crimes, including for human trafficking 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.” The UN Human Rights Committee has interpreted that to include only crimes that involve willful killing.

The Justice Ministry does not publish detailed information about the death penalty, including statistics on the crimes for which it is applied, however, the UN report notes that the number of victims of violent crimes has actually increased with the number of executions.

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.

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.

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 executions over the past two years.

“Iraq should be moving to restrict and then abolish the death penalty, not making it easier to impose it,” Whitson said. “Iraq’s government should give priority to strengthening its justice system rather than sending more people to the gallows.”