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The Iraq Report: Mass executions follow 'sham trials'

Date of publication: 21 December, 2017

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This week in Iraq: Rights organisations denounce mass executions while British soldiers found responsible for abuses in High Court.

The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

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In a single bloody day, 38 men were executed by hanging, the Iraqi justice ministry announced. All were accused of being members of either the Islamic State group or al-Qaeda. However, rights groups and experts have raised concerns that Iraq has failed to learn from the mistakes of the past that led to the rise of IS. Sectarianism seems to have become further entrenched, not beaten back, adding fuel to a potentially explosive fire.

Some of those most responsible for the most egregious bouts of sectarian bloodletting, figures within the Popular Mobilisation Forces, are now being recommended to be absorbed fully into the Iraqi army by influential religious authorities. The Iran-backed organisation is also part of Tehran's plan to secure Iraq as a communications nexus allowing for the transfer of men, materiel and cash from Iran to the Mediterranean, cementing Iraq's role as a subservient power to its more powerful theocratic neighbour.

Iran turns Iraq into a hub for its activities

An Iranian military convoy has crossed into Syria through Iraq, possibly marking the launch of a long-planned road linking Iran to the Mediterranean Sea, sources have told The New Arab.

Military sources stationed at the border town of al-Baaj said the convoy carrying troops from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the pro-Iran PMF, or Hashd al-Sha'abi in Arabic, crossed into Syria heading towards Deir az-Zour this week. This comes despite the fact that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had forbidden the PMF from conducting any extraterritorial operations.

Aside from Abadi's claimed attempts to keep the PMF an exclusively Iraqi force, the religious authority that led to their creation has also indirectly called for their disbandment. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – Shia Islam's most senior religious authority – said in last Friday's sermon that the PMF should be absorbed into the Iraqi military.

However, Sistani failed to address the fact that Abadi and other parliamentarians already passed legislation earlier this year that placed the PMF within the formal chain of command, with Abadi as their commander-in-chief. Despite this, the PMF has largely ignored all of Abadi's orders, and have instead been following the lead of Iran's IRGC and Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani.

The PMF was instrumental in forging Iran's road link to the Mediterranean, having been the spearhead of Soleimani's efforts to push IS out of key Iraqi border towns and supporting other Shia militants in Syria. It is highly unlikely that they would disband and accept further integration into Iraq's armed forces, as they perceive themselves to be the Iraqi version of the IRGC, which already enjoys positions of power and authority in its native Iran.

In total, 116 men have been put to death in Nasiriyah prison alone since August, firmly confirming Iraq's place as one of the world's most prolific users of the death sentence

Rights organisations denounce mass executions

Iraq hanged 38 men in the southern city of Nasiriyah last Thursday for their alleged membership of al-Qaeda and IS, causing an outcry from human rights groups and activists.

"The prison administration executed on Thursday in the presence of Justice Minister Haidar al-Zameli, in Nasiriyah prison, 38 death row prisoners belonging to al-Qaeda or Daesh [IS] accused of terrorist activities," said Dakhel Hazem, a senior official in the provincial council.

The mass execution was denounced by influential rights organisation Amnesty International, which said it was the second such large-scale killing by the Iraqi authorities in three months, and showed a "blatant disregard for human life and dignity".

On September 25, 42 people were put to death in the same prison, all on terrorism charges. About a month earlier, 36 men were executed in Nasiriyah after what Human Rights Watch described as a "sham trial" as retaliation for their alleged involvement in the 2014 Speicher military base massacre, where up to 770 Iraqi troops are believed to have been abducted and executed by IS militants. In total, 116 men have been put to death in Nasiriyah prison alone since August, firmly confirming Iraq's place as one of the world's most prolific users of the death sentence.

Highlighting the lack of due process and judicial fairness in Iraqi courts, Amnesty's Middle East Research Director, Lynn Maalouf, said: "The victims of IS deserve justice, not mass executions carried out after deeply flawed and hasty trials.

"The death penalty should not be used in any circumstances and especially in Iraq, where the government has a shameful record of putting people to death after deeply unfair trials and in many cases after being tortured to 'confess'."

Despite the presence of US-designated "terrorists", such as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, controlling armed sectarian groups in Iraq, no Shia Islamist militants have been tried or brought to justice for their well-documented atrocities - described as "war crimes" by international rights organisations.

Causes of IS' rise have been exacerbated, not addressed

With these latest mass executions as Iraq declares itself victorious in the fight against IS, there are concerns that nothing has changed in the divided country, despite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi lauding Iraqi "unity" as a reason behind the defeat of IS.

Throughout 2012 and 2013, a peaceful protest movement emerged across six Sunni Arab-majority governorates, complaining about the Iraqi government's sectarian policies towards the Sunnis.

Among other grievances, the protesters highlighted how the controversial Anti-Terror Law was being used to indict and execute Sunni Arabs on a sectarian basis on vague charges. The protests enjoyed widespread support, including from such figures as firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who accused his rival and then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of sectarianism against the Sunnis.

Instead of addressing those grievances, Maliki unleashed the Iraqi Security Forces against the protest camps as 2013 drew to a close, killing dozens of peaceful demonstrators and instigating a war against Sunni tribes, resistance factions, and other organisations that IS would later hijack following its takeover in Mosul in June 2014.

Rather than using the ensuing three years to bring judicial and social reforms to end the discrimination against Iraq's Sunni Arabs, Abadi paid only lip service to engendering unity among his countrymen. After declaring victory over IS earlier this month, Abadi has failed to show how his administration has made any substantive changes to remove opportunities for radicalisation to take hold.

More than three million Iraqis are currently internally displaced, reliant on international aid in refugee camps as their cities lie in ruins after vicious fighting between Baghdad and IS. These IDPs are largely Sunni Arab, and risk losing out on democratic participation in the upcoming elections in 2018 unless they are returned home.

Making matters worse is how the Iraqi government has weaponised IS membership. HRW released a damning 76-page report earlier this month, stating that some 20,000 Iraqis were being held in "inhumane" conditions after being accused of being IS members. These prisoners are being denied due process, tortured, and are being held incommunicado in secret prisons without their whereabouts being known by their relatives.

Supporting Amnesty's contention that trials were hastily conducted and unfair, HRW said that defence lawyers for the accused were allowed to attend hearings, but would not defend their clients.

According to the human rights organisation, these lawyers would attend trials and simply sit without making any arguments - simply because it is a legal requirement in Iraq for a defence lawyer to be provided. Many death sentences have been passed and executed following trials such as these.

This demonstrates that, despite Abadi's nationalistic rhetoric and claims of unity, nothing has really changed in Iraq and a fresh conflagration is conceivably on the horizon.

These breaches included stripping civilian prisoners naked and sexually humiliating them; hooding the prisoners with sandbags, causing damage to eyes; beatings and torture; forcing prisoners to lay down on their bellies as soldiers ran over their backs; and sensory and sleep deprivation

British soldiers responsible for abuses in Iraq

Aside from the Iraqi government's potential culpability for war crimes and graves breaches of human rights, Britain has also been drawn back into the spotlight over its conduct during the 2003-2009 occupation in Iraq.

The British High Court ruled last Thursday that British soldiers and the Ministry of Defence were guilty of perpetrating a slew of human rights abuses against Iraqi detainees, in what is being seen as a test case for similar claims brought against the UK government by Iraqi victims.

According to Mr Justice Leggatt, British forces under the authority of the MoD breached the Human Rights Act and, by extension, the European Convention on Human Rights by subjecting the Iraqi claimants to inhuman and degrading treatment during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

These breaches included stripping civilian prisoners naked and sexually humiliating them; hooding the prisoners with sandbags, causing damage to eyes; beatings and torture; forcing prisoners to lay down on their bellies as soldiers ran over their backs; and sensory and sleep deprivation.

The High Court ruling follows the International Criminal Court stating earlier this month that there was a "reasonable basis" to believe that British soldiers committed war crimes after the US-led invasion of Iraq.

The British government has long denied any culpability for war crimes in Iraq, but paid out millions in out of court settlements with a number of Iraqi claimants. The government also sought to minimise prosecutions against it by proving that a group of lawyers who were leading the charge against the government were found guilty of misconduct, with the lead lawyer Phil Shiner struck off as a solicitor earlier this year.

However, with the success of these claimants as genuine victims of British abuses throughout its six-year joint occupation of Iraq, hopes have now been raised that other victims of British excesses will finally get the justice for which they have longed.

The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

Click here to receive The Iraq Report each week in your inbox

Follow us on Twitter: @The_NewArab

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