(Beirut) – At least 150 prisoners at Iraq’s Nasiriyah prison face imminent execution without warning if President Abdul Latif Rashid approves their death sentences, Human Rights Watch said today. Thirteen men were executed in Nasiriyah prison on December 25, 2023, the first mass execution since 21 men were executed on November 16, 2020. Iraq should immediately declare a moratorium on all executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty.
“The renewal of mass executions in Iraq is an appalling development,” said Sarah Sanbar, Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Iraqi government should immediately declare a moratorium on executions. These tremendous injustices are compounded by well-documented flaws in Iraq’s judicial system that deny defendants a fair trial.”
The December 25 executions were carried out without regard for the basic rights of those facing the death penalty, Human Rights Watch said. An inmate at Nasiriyah prison told his lawyer that on the evening of December 24, the names of the 13 men to be executed were called out on the prison’s loudspeaker. He said that the authorities collected them from their cells then executed them in the morning. They were not allowed to call their families or their lawyers before they were executed.
“It’s impossible for me to prevent executions of the victims that I am representing,” a lawyer who wished to remain anonymous and who represents several inmates in Nasiriyah prison told Human Rights Watch. “We do not know who will be targeted, for which case, for which reason, and when. I don’t even have access to my clients’ case files. I have been searching for months and calling every court in Iraq, but they all say they can’t give them to me.”
Multiple mass executions have taken place at Nasiriyah prison, the only prison in Iraq that carries out executions. They include two mass executions, of 41 and 38 people respectively, less than three months apart in 2017. Both executions and death sentences had been steadily decreasing since 2020, a trend that has now been reversed. About 8,000 prisoners, most charged with terrorism offenses, are believed to be on death row in Iraq. Iraqis refer to Nasiriyah prison as “al hout,” or the whale, because it swallows people up and never spits them out, as people say.
These “secret executions,” as described in an Iraqi media outlet, are carried out without transparency or advance notice. They appear to be an attempt by the Iraqi authorities to resume executions in a manner that avoids the negative publicity and international condemnation that came with the last round of executions, Human Rights Watch said.
Iraq’s president is responsible for ratifying the death penalty decrees he receives from the Supreme Judicial Council, after which the executions are carried out. In a September 2023 statement, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani said that President Rashid should ratify all death penalty sentences for drug charges. The previous president, Barham Salih, opposed the death penalty and resisted ratifying death sentences, but political pressure and public anger over terrorist attacks led him to ratify them.
Two of the men executed on December 25 were convicted for the murder of a narcotraffic police officer.
“Without transparency, detainees and their families don’t know if their sentences have been ratified or not,” the lawyer said. “Some detainees know their sentences were ratified years ago, afraid that any day their name could be called over the loudspeaker.”
Sweeping application of the death penalty is of particular concern given serious flaws in Iraq’s judicial system, particularly in terrorism trials, that deny defendants the right to a fair trial. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty and irreversibility.
Terrorism trials in Iraq have generally been rushed, based on a defendants’ confessions—often obtained under torture—and have not involved victim participation. The authorities have systematically violated the due process rights of suspects, such as guarantees in Iraqi law that detainees will see a judge within 24 hours, will have access to a lawyer throughout interrogations, and that their families will be notified and should be able to communicate with them during detention.
If the defendant’s fair trial guarantees have been violated, imposition of the death penalty would make the sentence arbitrary.
Courts in Iraq regularly rely on uncorroborated confessions and ignore allegations that these confessions were obtained under torture. In line with international legal standards and Iraqi criminal procedures, Iraq’s judges should investigate all credible allegations of torture and the security forces responsible, and transfer detainees to different facilities immediately after they allege torture or ill-treatment to protect them from retaliation.
The government should reiterate to judges that they are obligated to dismiss any evidence obtained by torture. Judicial authorities should investigate and determine who was responsible for any torture, punish abusive officers, and compensate the victim.
Iraqi judges have sentenced defendants to death on the overbroad charge of mere “membership of a terrorist organization,” without reference to any acts of violence. Under international law, application of the death penalty is strictly limited to the “most serious crimes,” meaning intentional killing, or murder.
A man whose surname is al-Dulaimy told Human Rights Watch that his three brothers were sentenced to death under Iraq’s counterterrorism law and have been imprisoned in Nasiriyah prison since 2015. He said that his brothers were unjustly accused of terrorism after his family refused a militia’s extortion attempts to provide it with partnership in his family’s construction firm.
Dulaimy said his brothers have experienced torture and other ill-treatment. His mother and his brothers’ wives are only allowed to visit every six months and face brutality from prison guards on each visit. “During the last visit, a prison guard beat my nephew, who is 10 years old,” Dulaimy said. “My brothers told my mother they were tortured, forced to sign confessions, psychologically tormented, and fed poor food. Guards made them stand naked in the open air as a form of punishment.”
Dulaimy said his family has spent years trying to get a medical report to prove his brothers’ accounts of torture to no avail. “They wouldn’t give us the report,” he said. “They just passed us from one court to another.”
In light of rising executions, Dulaimy fears for his brothers’ lives. “It could happen any time,” he said. “We just don’t know. They don’t share information with us.”
Nasiriyah prison is also notorious for its dire conditions. Human Rights Watch is aware of at least 96 deaths of Nasiriyah inmates since 2021, 18 of them within a four-week span in 2021. Many of these deaths occur in suspicious circumstances; bodies show evidence of torture, and families have been denied access to autopsy reports.
“For years, Iraq had one of the highest rates of executions in the world,” Sanbar said. “It is deeply troubling to see the country revert to the death penalty instead of making meaningful reforms in the judiciary that would ensure fair trials.”