Tuesday, September 01, 2009

August deadliest month in Iraq in over a year

Before the wave of attacks, Iraq had been on track to mark the most peaceful Ramadan since 2003, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. military. Now, the country is going through the holy month with a building sense of national crisis and fears that more violence lies ahead.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been widely criticized for prematurely trumpeting the successes of his security forces, appeared on state television at the start of Ramadan to reassure citizens that his government is doing everything in its power to combat terrorism.

The above is from Liz Sly's "In Baghdad, 'everyone is worried this Ramadan'" (Salt Lake Tribune). As BBC explains (and if you go to BBC Radio, World Service is prominently featuring the storyline each hour currently) that, according to Iraqi ministry figures, August saw the most civilian deaths in the last 13 months. AFP explains, "Statistics compiled by the defence, interior and health ministries showed that 456 people -- 393 civilians, 48 police and 15 Iraqi soldiers -- were killed, the highest toll since July last year when 465 died in unrest." Those figures are incorrect -- not a surprise. But they're incorrect just in terms of deaths reported by media outlets in August. As noted yesterday, there were 509 reported deaths and 1919 reported injured. A number from the second category would be expected to slide from the wounded into the death column. (True of any victims of violence in any country.) Tim Cocks and Philippa Fletcher (Reuters) observe that the ministry's number is also higher than August 2008 which was 382. Today Steven Lee Myers lists the death toll for Black Wednesday as 132. I don't doubt that's possible, but I haven't seen that reported elsewhere. The day after, the death toll had risen from 95 to 101. Again, wounded frequently do not recover. That's 31 more deaths than we've included in the count. If Myers is correct, that would mean 540 deaths in August.

As noted in yesterday's snapshot, Sunday Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's will was read at his funeral and he left the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (Shi'ite political party) to his son Ammar Hakim. In addition, party elders nominated him for the post on Monday with the board to vote today. In this morning's New York Times, Steven Lee Myers states, "His father, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who died of cancer in Tehran last week, provided for the succession in his will, heading off any potential leadership challenges. The party's television network announced the nomination, and a spokesman said it would be ratified by the party’s leadership on Tuesday." Suadad al-Salhy, Aseel Kami, Michael Christie and Philippa Fletcher (Reuters) report the party has declared Ammar al-Hakim has been appointed following a vote:

The swift confirmation by the council of ISCI leaders that Ammar al-Hakim would take over indicated the party had managed to avoid a power struggle, at least in public, that could have weakened it before the election.
Some party insiders had said they opposed a dynastic succession while Ammar al-Hakim's youth -- he was born in 1971 -- also raised questions about his support base.
"We will work hard to make ISCI achieve a distinguished position in the political process in Iraq, with the help of all other political powers," Ammar al-Hakim said in a statement broadcast on ISCI-owned television.
"We will work to achieve the highest levels of cooperation and harmony among the leadership of ISCI to succeed in this major task." He said the party would work to bring Iraqis together.

BBC Radio's Worldwide Service is also featuring a report on the draft law in Iraq for a smoking ban in public places that would make Iraq the first Arab country to have such a ban and it's met with some resistance including the belief that the government is focusing on a minor issue when "fundamentals like electricity and jobs are scarce". Andrew North travels around Baghdad speaking to people and ends up at "cafe by the banks of the river Tigris" where a man tells him that the government should be focused on "bombs, terrorists. Not a smart thing [the ban], not a smart thing. This [smoking] is a pleasure." Another man declares of smoking, "It's really important, if it weren't for smoking, Iraqis would be dead right now. Cigarettes might kill one or two people but car bombs kill hundreds." Andrew North notes there may be resistance in Parliament where a "majority of members are thought to smoke." A medical study is mentioned in the report -- an alleged medical study. When Iraq carries off a census, we'll pretend Nouri's regime can carry out a medical study.

Today Amnesty International releases a report on Iraq executions. They note:

More than 1,000 people face execution in Iraq, said Amnesty International today (1 September), as it published a new report on the extensive imposition of death sentences in the country.
Some 150 of these prisoners have exhausted all means of appeal or clemency and are at immediate risk of death. The majority of the condemned (some 750, including 12 women) are held by the Ministry of Justice, while several hundred are detained by the Interior Ministry. At least seven facing execution are held by the US military at Camp Cropper in Baghdad.
Ten female death row prisoners have recently been transferred to the al-Kadhimiya Prison in Baghdad, which suggests that their executions may be imminent. One of these, 27-year-old Samar Sa'ad 'Abdullah, facing execution for murder, has alleged that she was tortured into making a false confession, including with electric shocks and beatings with a cable. She reportedly received a trial lasting less than two days, where one of her lawyers was ordered out of the court by the trial judge.
Amnesty has repeatedly expressed its concerns about trials conducted by criminal courts in Iraq, whose procedures fall short of international standards for fair trials.

Amnesty International UK Campaigns Director Tim Hancock said:
'The sheer number of people facing execution is Iraq is extremely alarming.
'When the Iraqi authorities brought the death penalty back in 2004 they claimed they needed capital punishment to curb widespread violence in the country. This was always a bogus argument - there's no evidence that the death penalty ever provides an effective deterrent - and it has palpably failed to stem years' of violence in Iraq.
'Iraq's ramshackle justice system can barely cope with ordinary crimes never mind capital offences. Instead of sending hundreds of people to a grisly death at the end of a rope, the Iraqi authorities should halt all executions and impose an immediate moratorium.'
Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussain's government in 2003 the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority suspended the death penalty, which had been widely used under Saddam Hussein's government. However, the following year the new Iraqi government reintroduced capital punishment and since then it has widened the scope of the penalty.
As Amnesty's report points out, use of the death penalty in Iraq is far from transparent. On 10 June, for example, 19 people - 18 men, one woman - were hanged, a fact that was never officially announced or reported. The deaths only became known after information later leaked out.
Meanwhile, in March the Iraqi authorities informed Amnesty of the fact that 128 people had had their death sentences confirmed; Amnesty also learnt that the executions were to be carried out in batches of 20 at a time. Two months later it was reported that 12 of the executions had gone ahead - though virtually no other information was ever made available.
Last year alone at least 285 people were sentenced to death in Iraq, and at least 34 executed. In 2007 at least 199 people were sentenced to death and 33 were executed, while in 2006 at least 65 people were put to death. However the actual figures could be much higher as there are no official statistics for the number of prisoners facing execution and the Iraqi media's reporting of death sentences is erratic and incomplete.

From Amnesty's blog:

OK, so 1,000 is a lot of people and yet that's how many are on death row in Iraq right now. It's a staggeringly large number and it's sort of taken the world by surprise. It's just not what people think of when they picture Iraq. Sectarian violence and horrible bombings, yes; courts sentencing people to death on a weekly basis, no.
It's people like Samar Sa'ad 'Abdullah who we're talking about. She's a 27-year-old woman who's been found guilty of murder but only, she says, after she was viciously tortured (electric shocks, beatings with a cable) into making a false confession. If past examples are anything to go by, being beaten into making a phoney confession is common in Iraq, and meanwhile Samar’s trial lasted a grand total of one and a bit days and one of her lawyers was even ordered out of the court by the trial judge.
So Samar is now living (if that's the right word) in the shadow of the hangman, one of at least a dozen women on death row in Iraq and one of about 150 who've exhausted their appeals and are perilously close to execution. (Take action here, calling on the Iraqi authorities to halt Samar's execution and all others, and for a death penalty moratorium to be implemented in Iraq).
Staying with numbers, a few years back we did some number crunching at Amnesty and worked out that there were about 20,000 people on death row in the world, with the largest number in Pakistan (about 7,000). The USA has about 3,500. The country that executes the most -- China, which kills thousands every year -- has an unknown number (massive secrecy) but may not have so many actually facing execution for the simple -- and very grim -- reason that killings are carried out quickly. So, from a figure of zero back in 2004 (rather ironically the American-led interim Iraqi government suspended Iraq's death penalty after Saddam's fall), Iraq five years later has one of world's biggest death rows and one of the planet’s highest execution rates.

CNN (link has text and video) spoke with Noor al-Deen Bahaa al-Deen, Iraq's Minister of Justice, about the report: "For us, there is no difference between men and women who commit crimes. A person who commits a crime should be punished. In general, this can't happen now or in a year or two, but I hope in the future, the death penalty would be abolished, because I am personally in favor of life sentences rather than the death penalty. [. . .] Even if I put in a request, this is a worthless request, because there is a law. As for abolishing the death sentence and replacing it with life imprisonment, that is an amendment of the law, and that has to happen through parliament. And parliament as the representative of the people decides if the punishment changes or doesn't."

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liz sly