Short Falls Of International Law

The mass hanging of 42 prisoners at Al Hoot prison on Sunday in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah has sparked controversy among human rights monitors world-wide. Leading human rights official, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said the mass execution raises “massive concerns” regarding Iraq’s use of the death penalty.

Al Hussein said, “I am appalled to learn of the execution of 42 prisoners in a single day…Under international law, the death penalty may only be imposed after a strict set of substantive and procedural requirements have been met.” Zeid commented that it was “extremely doubtful” that due process and guarantee of a fair trial was respected in any of the executions that took place. The process includes the ability to seek pardon or commutation of their sentence, the right to effective legal assistance and access to a full appeals process. The Iraqi government has not released any information regarding the individuals’ cases despite frequent requests for information placed by UN human rights staff in Iraq over the last week and throughout the past two years.

Iraqi government authorities have claimed that the executed prisoners were charged under anti-terrorism laws, convicted of crimes such as detonating Improvised Explosive Devices, carrying out armed robberies, kidnapping, and killing members of the security forces. However the government has not released any information about the individuals’ cases; their names, places of residence, precise crimes, trials, date of sentencing or the appeals processes are said to be exhausted according to Iraqi officials.

“We are extremely concerned at reports that Iraq may be planning to expedite the process of executing prisoners already sentenced to death, and that this could result in more large-scale executions in the coming weeks,” Zeid added. “This raises the prospect of further violations, as the imposition of a death sentence upon the conclusion of a trial in which fair trial provisions have not been respected constitutes a violation of the right to life.”

Zeid noted that, if the death penalty should be used at all, it should be reserved for individuals who have committed the most serious crimes. The UN leading official said that Iraq might be applying the death penalty for crimes not serious enough to fit the punishment. “We can all agree that members of terrorist groups who are proven to have committed serious crimes should be held fully accountable for them,” Zeid commented. “However, Iraq’s use of anti-terrorism legislation to impose the death penalty for a wide range of acts does not appear to meet the strict threshold of ‘most serious crimes.’” Al-Hussein went on to call authorities to “halt all imminent executions and to establish an immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty.”

The actions of the Iraqi authorities – on Sunday and since – reveal what appears to be a gross miscarriage of justice. Such events strongly suggest that the Iraqi government will continue to violate the course of the due process and fair trial guarantees in future. Iraqi officials have stated that of the 6,000 prisoners estimated to be in the Nasiriyah prison, 1,200 of them have been sentenced to death. The UN human rights office has warned Iraqi authorities that its justice system is too flawed to permit any executions.

The mass hangings of 42 individuals, killed without a fair trial or due process, is a gross miscarriage of justice under international law. However, the death penalty should never be a fitting judiciary result. International law does not go far enough to prevent violence in all its forms. Violence begets violence and killing begets killing. Terrorism should not be fought with executions. Even if the individuals killed were terrorists, government-sanctioned killing in all forms can cultivate radicalization. An eye for an eye is surely not a metric befitting international human rights standards.