The father of Iraqi man, Ammar Hamid, is unashamed as he tells how his son ended up on death row in Baghdad. “He didn’t mean to kill his friend,” Hamid senior says, somewhat bitterly- he’s told this story many times. “His mistake was to agree to act as a look out. But he didn’t shoot or kill anyone!”
Hamid knows his son was involved, along with several other men, in the murder of an acquaintance. But he doesn’t believe he should be sentenced to death for his part in the crime. And the Hamid family has already spent what is a comparatively huge amount of money on their son’s legal defence: US$16,000 in an attempt to change the sentence from death to life imprisonment.
But it’s been five months since the verdict was passed by one of the country’s highest courts of appeal and as Hamid’s father now says, “with every day that passes, our hopes diminish”.
Hamid’s son Ammar is one of hundreds of Iraqis waiting to be executed by the state: many of those on death row are in custody at Abu Ghraib prison, west of Baghdad. According to Human Rights Watch, a New York based monitoring organization, “since the beginning of 2012, Iraq has executed at least 65 prisoners, 51 of them in January, and 14 more on February 8, for various offences”.
In their annual report, another human rights group, Amnesty International, noted a surge in executions in the Middle East region in 2011, with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq the main culprits.
However it seems that abolishing the death penalty in a country like Iraq is more difficult than one might first assume. The Iraqi government supports capital punishment and so it seems, do most of the public. Unlike in countries like the US where there are surveys on the contentious issue – a 2011 poll found that around 60 percent of Americans favoured it in murder cases - capital punishment is not a heavily debated subject in Iraq.
Under Saddam Hussein, over one hundred different crimes were potentially punishable by death. After Hussein’s government was toppled by a US-led invasion in 2003, the first interim government established by the Americans suspended capital punishment.
However little more than a year later capital punishment was re-introduced albeit for a smaller set of mostly violent crimes. Some felt that the decision to bring back the death penalty was motivated, in part, by a general desire to inflict that punishment on the former leader, Hussein, who would go on trial shortly.
Even the Hamid case illustrates this. The family of the murdered man said they would kill a member of the accused’s family, if Hamid’s son’s punishment was commuted to life in prison.
While United Nations figures suggest that more than 1,200 people have been sentenced to death in Iraq since 2004. Figures obtained by NIQASH from the Ministry of Justice indicate that from 2004 up until the end of 2010, 1145 people were sentenced to death and around 250 have been executed, 84 of them in 2010. Those numbers would have increased due to executions in late 2011 and early 2012, totalling at least 63.
The Iraqi government justifies the executions by arguing that only the death penalty can deter terrorist acts. And somewhat unusually, this sentiment is iterated by the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights. According to a Ministry spokesperson, Kamil Amin, death by hanging is suitable as long as there has been a fair trial.
“The Iraqi justice system is dealing with major crimes that have resulted in many victims and the death penalty is often the minimum price, one that deters the criminals and satisfies the victims,” Amin explained. Capital punishment, he said, was “overwhelmingly popular”.
In general public sentiment does seem to indicate that, outside of some human rights groups in the country, Iraqis are not overly opposed to capital punishment. As one state adviser told news weekly Time in 2005 when capital punishment was re-introduced in Iraq after that temporary suspension: “from the Iraqi point of view, they [the people] don\'t like to see a lot of people get killed every day and have a low number of executions”.
“Parliament cannot ignore the blood of Iraqi people killed in terrorist attacks around the country,” MP Abdul Mahdi Al-Khafaji, a member of the parliamentary committee on human rights, said. “And criticism from international organizations, as well as their demands that capital punishment be abolished, is unjustified – particularly as long as the security situation remains so unstable in Iraq.”
Since 2003, al-Khafaji explains, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed by terrorists. “It’s difficult to persuade people who have suffered in this way to give up their rights to call for the death penalty,” he argued.
The parliamentary committee on security and defence supports the death penalty for similar reasons. “Abandoning capital punishment will create tensions and negatively impact on the stability and security of the country,” MP and committee member, Qasim al-Araji, said.
On the other hand, officials say that while capital punishment could be applied to around 50 different types of crimes in Iraq, it is actually only ever called for in the most serious cases, such as premeditated murder, kidnapping and murder or terrorism.
And Amin adds that a long legislative process is required, including several courts of appeal, before the death penalty is imposed. “This ensures fair trials,” Amin said.
However, as one might expect, various human rights groups in Iraq still have plenty of problems with capital punishment in Iraq.
“Of course, torture and coercion is not seen in court,” media law expert, Hasan Shaaban, said. “However it does happen in police stations.”
Well known human rights activist, Hanaa Edward, head of the Al Amal (Hope) organization which works in women’s rights and in other areas, was quick to explain why she is opposed to capital punishment.
“Even criminals have the right to life,” Edward argued. “And those who want to keep the death penalty are looking at it from the point of view of punishment. They’re not thinking about reducing crime rates – there’s no relation between the death penalty and lowering crimes rates,” she added.
But even Edward admits that it won’t be easy for Iraq to abandon capital punishment. “Demands by civil society activists and international human rights organizations won’t find favour with the Iraqi government unless there is a decline in violence in the country,” she concluded.
This story was prepared as part of the Media academy Iraq’s mentorship programme for young Iraqi journalists, together with NIQASH’s regular correspondents around Iraq. The mentor for this story was regular NIQASH contributor Kholoud Ramzi.