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The New Arab Staff

Middle Eastern governments ‘ruthless and chilling’ on death penalty: Amnesty

Amnesty campaigns against the death penalty worldwide [VIRGINIE LEFOUR/AFP via Getty Images]

Date of publication: 21 April, 2021

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Four Middle Eastern countries performed 88 percent of known executions taking place worldwide last year.

Governments in the Middle East and North Africa accounted for four of the top five most prolific users of the death penalty in 2020, according to a new report by Amnesty International.

The document, released on Wednesday, said that Iran, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia performed 88 percent of known executions throughout the world last year.

Iran executed at least 246 people in 2020, while at least 107 were put to death in Egypt, according to the London-based NGO.

Iraq killed 45 or more, and Saudi Arabia 27.

Four other Middle Eastern countries also carried out executions, with Oman and Qatar restarting the practice last year.

Amnesty's report on capital punishment around the world does not include figures on China, which is believed to execute thousands every year, due to worries over how Beijing has historically used this data.

Amnesty’s MENA regional director, Heba Morayef, said authorities in the Middle East “displayed a ruthless and chilling persistence in carrying out plans to put people to death” despite the pandemic.

Read more: 'Political systems are broken': A year of Covid-19 and repression in the Middle East

Nevertheless, executions in the Middle East did fall by 25 percent on 2019 numbers to the lowest rate in ten years.

This was principally due to an 85 percent reduction in Saudi Arabia, which Amnesty suggested may have resulted from Covid-related delays and Riyadh’s presidency of the G20.

While Saudi Arabia led the international economic organisation, no executions were performed. As soon as its time in charge ended, use of the death penalty resumed.

Among the top executors identified by Amnesty is Iraq, a country whose use of this punishment goes relatively underreported.

Iraq has had at least 7,900 people living under a death sentence as of the end of last year – the highest known figure for any country.

Speaking to The New Arab, Rand Hammoud from Amnesty’s Iraq research team said executions have risen amid the authorities’ war against the Islamic State and especially after Baghdad declared victory in 2017.

While executions fell to 45 last year, the pattern in recent years is otherwise clear: from 2015 to 2019, recorded executions rose to 100 from 61.

Hammoud said Amnesty is worried not just by the number of executions, but also “about the fact that it is often used after grossly unfair trials” with “vague and overly broad [terror] charges.”

“The authorities claim that these trials and sentences are meant to serve justice to the victims and victims’ families of IS crimes,” she noted, arguing this is undermined by violations of due process.

These include convictions based on confessions gained under torture, mass trials and failures to provide adequate defences to IS suspects – abuses similar to those occurring throughout the region.

This comes alongside clandestine executions which allegedly occur at Nasiriyah prison every week.

“It is vital in Amnesty’s view to ensure fair trials with no recourse to the death penalty as the only means to provide justice and accountability to those who suffered crimes by the IS,” Hammoud said.

Despite the organisation’s campaigning, however, she relates that there has been no movement from the Iraqi government.

Amnesty’s secretary general, Agnès Callamard, called on governments everywhere “to make 2021 the year that they end state-sanctioned killings for good.”

“We will continue to campaign until the death penalty is abolished everywhere, once and for all,” she continued.

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