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Death Penalty Information

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Iraq: Secret death chambers
Sunday, Nov. 12, 2006
Iraq's Secret Death Chambers
Saddam could face the gallows by year's end. But Iraqi executioners are already busy
Before he is put to death, Saddam Hussein will be allowed one last phone call. He will be given a glass of water, a moment to pray and an opportunity to make a statement about his life and crimes. The entire event will be recorded on video to be stored in the Iraqi government archives. Then his neck will be slipped into the noose of a 2-in.-thick hemp rope. A few moments later, his life will end.
That's how recent executions have proceeded in Iraq--at least when the equipment works. Since the Iraqi government reintroduced capital punishment in 2004, several executions have been beset by glitches and logistical snafus. At first, executioners used an old rope left over from Saddam's regime that stretched too much to break the condemned's neck; it sometimes took as long as eight minutes for the hanged to die. New ropes brought in for later executions jerked harder on the convicted person's spine, but executioners soon noticed the cords fraying on the bend of the reinforced steel installed in the cement ceiling of the gallows. During a recent round of executions, on Sept. 6, the rope snapped after 12 hangings, sending a condemned man plummeting 15 ft. through the trap door onto the hard concrete floor below. Miraculously, he survived. "Allah saved me!" he shouted. "Allah saved me!" For 40 minutes, prison guards, officials and witnesses engaged in heated arguments over whether or not to interpret the broken rope as divine intervention.
It may not be an efficient process, but the death penalty is back in vogue in Iraq. After the U.S. invasion, capital punishment was suspended by L. Paul Bremer, head of the now-defunct Coalition Provisional Authority, but interim Prime Minster Iyad Allawi reinstated it a year later. Since September 2005, when three men were hanged in the southwestern city of Kut after being convicted of running a murder-and-kidnapping ring, the Iraqi government has executed 50 prisoners convicted of murder or kidnapping, says spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. An adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says the government plans to execute "two or three more batches of 14 or 15 each" in the coming months. Al-Maliki told the BBC last week that Saddam too could be hanged "before the end of the year." For the beleaguered Iraqi government, the practice of executions plays a political role as well as a legal one: amid the inescapable violence on Iraq's streets, the death penalty plays well with Iraqis tired of seeing gangs commit murder with impunity. "From the Iraqi point of view," says al-Maliki's adviser, "they don't like to see a lot of people get killed every day and have a low number of executions."
And yet an examination of the way the death penalty is administered in Iraq casts doubt on the government's candor about the frequency of executions, and that raises questions about whether justice is being flouted in Iraq's rush to execute. According to an Iraqi official involved in coordinating executions, the hanging rope has been used more extensively than has been publicly acknowledged by the Iraqi government. Three days of secret executions took place between December 2005 and March 2006, says the official, who attended all three sets of hangings. When the additional executions are taken into account, according to an official in the Prime Minister's office who declined to give an exact number, approximately 90 have been executed, almost double the officially declared tally.
The government's underreporting of executions reflects a general lack of transparency in the process. Hangings are conducted in secret, at a heavily fortified location in Baghdad built by an American contractor. Only a few officials are notified beforehand, and the vast majority of the names of those executed are never made public. Human Rights Watch, which monitors the fairness of judicial systems around the world, is concerned about the ability of defendants in Iraq to get a fair trial and access to a thorough appeals process. Iraq has repeatedly rebuffed requests from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights for statistics on the country's death-penalty cases, leading the high commissioner to request that Iraq commute all death sentences. The government has refused. In a written response to the U.N., the government said that suspending capital punishment would "undermine our policy on crime," citing capital punishment as a "public deterrence."
That was the objective when the Iraqi government announced in March that they had executed an infamous psychopath and insurgent hit man named Shukair Farid, "the butcher of Mosul," whose gang slaughtered more than 200 during a yearlong rampage in the northern city. Farid, a police lieutenant, had gained fame after appearing on the hit reality-TV interrogation show Terrorism in the Hands of Justice, on which he told in gruesome detail of the scores of Iraqi lives he took, often using his uniform to trap victims. Farid didn't go easily. On the morning the convoy of Iraqi officials drove out to oversee the execution, 30 cars ambushed them with gunmen firing PKC automatic weapons. After fighting their way through to the gallows, the executioners were surprised at how defiant Farid was as he faced his own death. When asked to verify his identity before they put the rope around his neck, Farid said, "That's me, so what." "That guy was ready to go to hell, I guess," says a government official.
But there are many others on death row who continue to profess their innocence. Women doing time for murder in Baghdad live in a single 10-bunk cell in Khadamiyah Women's Prison in the northern part of town near the Tigris River. There waits Zayneb, a brown-haired woman in her late 20s wearing a black head scarf, convicted in September of conspiring with her husband to murder three relatives. The judge gave her three death sentences, one for each relative who was murdered. She says she didn't have anything to do with their deaths. She has only one chance to appeal the ruling before she faces the noose. The reality of her predicament sinks in as Zayneb looks at the empty bunk across the room, until recently occupied by a friend of hers who has been transferred to another jail to wait for her own execution. "We spent a long time together here," Zayneb says, tears welling up in her copper-colored eyes. "They took her two days ago." She sees little hope for herself. "I am convicted of three crimes. If one is waived, what about the other two? For sure I will be hanged."
The saving grace for defendants like Zayneb is that Iraq's judicial system operates at a crawl. It's a "lethargic process," says Basam Ridha, an adviser who has been tasked by al-Maliki to hasten the punishment. Some cases, says Ridha, have taken a year or more just to be heard by the investigative judge, who decides if the case needs to go to trial or not. Other prisoners short-circuit the process and find ways to get out of prison, either by paying their jailers or, in some instances, bribing the judge to dismiss their case.
Saddam, though, is almost out of time. If his sentence is upheld by the appeals court, Iraqi and U.S. officials say the plan is for him to be hanged from the same gallows used for common criminals. That could change for security reasons, says a U.S. lawyer working closely with the court, but even a technical snafu probably won't be enough to save him now. Remember the man who slipped the noose, believing Allah had saved him? His reprieve didn't last long. "We hanged him," says an Iraqi official who watched as prison guards took down his body and wheeled it into the adjacent refrigerated morgue. "We followed the law."
With reporting by M. Ezzat, Mark Kukis/Baghdad
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