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DEATH PENALTY: U.N. Faults Iraq for Continued Executions

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 5 2007 (IPS) - A new United Nations report on human rights criticises the government in Baghdad for its continued executions of prisoners despite appeals by the United Nations and its human rights bodies for a moratorium on capital punishment.

The death penalty in Iraq – argues the report authored by Leandro Despouy, the U.N. special rapporteur overseeing the independence of judges and lawyers – also denies crime victims the right to the truth.

The study specifically criticises the recent execution of an Iraqi prisoner, who may have possessed key evidence relating to the 2003 bombing of the U.N. compound in battle-ravaged Baghdad.

In a report to the upcoming 62nd session of the General Assembly which begins Sep. 18, Despouy says he is “extremely concerned about the circumstances surrounding the execution of Awraz Abdel Aziz Mahmoud Sa’eed,” who had confessed to having participated in the attack against the U.N. offices.

The Iraqi government, he complains, went ahead with his execution in spite of the fact that the United Nations had specifically requested the “cancellation” of the execution in order to elicit information on the bombing.

“The execution also violated the right to the truth of the victims of the attack against the U.N. offices in Baghdad, and frustrated attempts to obtain significant evidence relating to the tragic attack that cost 22 people their lives, including Sergio Vieira de Mello,” a senior U.N. official who was a national of Brazil.

Vieira de Mello, who headed the Baghdad office at the time of the bombing, also held the substantive posts of U.N. high commissioner for human rights and special representative of the secretary-general in Iraq.

In his report, Despouy expresses “serious concern that individuals sentenced to death are still being executed in Iraq, despite his repeated requests and those of other U.N. bodies that such executions should be discontinued.”

Furthermore, in the case of Iraq, he points out, “The implementation of the death penalty has engendered a serious violation of the right to the truth of the victims of the crimes committed by Saddam Hussein’s regime.”

In January, the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour made an unusual public appeal to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani asking him to spare the lives of two former colleagues of Saddam Hussein.

The two officials, Awad Hamad al-Bandar and Barzan Ibrahim al-Hassan, were co-defendants of the former Iraqi president.

“The concerns I expressed just days ago with respect to the fairness and impartiality of Saddam Hussein’s trial apply also to these two defendants,” Arbour said. All of them were executed.

Arbour also pointed out that international law, as it currently stands, only allows the imposition of the death penalty as an exceptional measure within rigorous legal constraints.

In a report released last April, the London-based human rights organisation Amnesty International said that Iraq was the world’s fourth highest user of the death penalty, ranking behind China, Iran and Pakistan.

Since mid-2004, at least 270 people have been sentenced to death, “often after unfair trials”, and more than 100 people have been hanged, including several senior officials of the former Saddam Hussein regime.

Under the U.S. occupation, following the ouster of Hussein, the death penalty was suspended. But Iraq’s interim government reintroduced the death penalty in August 2004.

The government argues that the death penalty would act as a deterrent in view of the grave security situation in Iraq.

But Amnesty International has challenged this argument, pointing out that the extent of violence has increased in Iraq, rather than diminished.

AI also said that the death penalty may have contributed to the brutalisation of Iraqi society.

After an ambiguous statement on the death penalty last January, when he virtually justified the hanging of Saddam Hussein, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon later made an official pronouncement on capital punishment.

Calling for the gradual phasing out of the death penalty worldwide, Ban said: “I believe that life is precious and must be protected and respected, and that all human beings have the right to live in dignity. International law affirms these values.”

“I recognise the growing trend in international law and in national practice towards a phasing out of the death penalty. I encourage that trend,” Ban said.

As member states are taking their decisions, he said, “I expect they will comply with all aspects of international human rights law. As you know, I have also urged restraint by the Iraqi authorities in the execution of death sentences imposed by the Iraqi High Tribunal.”

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