GENEVA (27 September 2017) – The mass hanging of 42 prisoners on Sunday 24 September at Al Hoot prison in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah raises “massive concerns” over the country’s use of the death penalty, the UN human rights chief said Wednesday.
“I am appalled to learn of the execution of 42 prisoners in a single day,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said. “Under international law, the death penalty may only be imposed after a strict set of substantive and procedural requirements have been met.”
Zeid said it was “extremely doubtful” that these strict due process and fair trial guarantees – including the men’s rights to effective legal assistance and a full appeals process, and to seek pardon or commutation of their sentence – had been met in every one of these 42 individual cases.
“In such circumstances, there is a clear risk of a gross miscarriage of justice,” he added.
He also stressed that the death penalty, if it is used at all, can only be imposed for the “most serious crimes,” a category UN human rights mechanisms have consistently interpreted as restricted to murder and other forms of intentional killing.
“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 said. “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.’”
Iraqi government officials have stated that the executed prisoners were Iraqis affiliated to ISIL or al-Qaeda, who had been charged under anti-terrorism laws with offences including kidnapping, killing members of the security forces, carrying out armed robberies, and detonating Improvised Explosive Devices. However no information has been released about their names, places of residence, exact crimes, trials, date of sentencing, or the appeals processes which Iraqi officials say they have exhausted.
“The lack of precise information about the cases is an additional cause for concern,” Zeid added. UN human rights staff in Iraq have been regularly requesting information on the use of the death penalty for the past two years – including as recently as last week – but have received no responses from either the Government or the judiciary.
The UN human rights office, noting that Iraqi officials have stated that around 1,200 of the estimated 6,000 prisoners held in Nasiriyah have been sentenced to death, has repeatedly warned that the Iraqi justice system as a whole is too flawed to allow for any executions.
“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 said. “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.”
He noted general concern at Iraq’s lack of compliance with its international human rights obligations in relation to the imposition of the death penalty, in particular under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iraq has been a State Party for more than 40 years.
“I urge Iraq to step back from its policy of accelerated or mass executions,” Zeid said. He also called on the Government to establish a special judicial oversight body to make recommendations on legal reforms that would ensure respect for due process and fair trial standards, as well as to monitor any future trials related to capital punishment.
“I also urge the authorities to halt all imminent executions and to establish an immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty,” he added.
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