The Camp Speicher massacre is the deadliest atrocity to date carried out
by the the Islamic State.
BAGHDAD — Hatam Kareem received the telephone call on Sunday that he had been waiting for, saying the men who killed his brother had been executed by hanging.
“It was the happiest call I have ever received,” he said.
Thousands of other Iraqis shared his happiness on Sunday over the executions of 36 men convicted and sentenced to death for taking part in the Islamic State’s massacre of roughly 1,700 Shiite military personnel in 2014.
The massacre, at the Camp Speicher air base near Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, is the deadliest atrocity to date carried out by the Sunni militants of the Islamic State, either in Iraq or in Syria. The crime galvanized Iraq’s historically oppressed Shiites, who have been in power since the 2003 American invasion, and took up a place in their collective memory alongside the atrocities Mr. Hussein inflicted on them.
Video images of the massacre that were made and released by the Islamic State showed killing on an industrial scale, with one man after another being shot in the head and pushed into the flowing waters of the Tigris River. Other victims were killed on land and buried in mass graves. A survivor, speaking to The New York Times in 2014, described how he heard a bullet whiz past his head, then played dead in a pile of bodies and hid out for three days among the reeds along the river.
Iraqi forces recaptured Tikrit from the Islamic State in 2015, and the riverbank became a site of pilgrimage, visited by relatives of victims from mainly Shiite southern Iraq.
Iraqi officials said that the 36 convicts were executed on Sunday at a prison in Nasiriya in the south. The death chamber was crowded with the families of Camp Speicher victims who were invited to watch the executions. The convicts were hanged one by one, as women wailed and howled, their tears of joy mixing with tears of sadness, and men hugged each other in celebration, according to a prison official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
After the completed executions were announced, Sabah Radhi, whose brother was killed at Camp Speicher, said: “Today is the day of victory for all of us, the day where happiness has entered our broken hearts. We have been waiting for this day since the massacre, and it’s finally come true.”
Mr. Radhi said that as soon as he heard the news, he called his uncle, who lost a son at Camp Speicher. “He was very happy,” Mr. Radhi said. “He felt that the Iraqi justice system has taken revenge for his son.”
The convictions and death sentences were handed down this year. After an Islamic State bombing in Baghdad last month killed roughly 300 people, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promised to speed up executions of convicted Islamic State terrorists.
Activists have long criticized Iraq’s use of the death penalty because of the problems plaguing the country’s justice system and the number of convictions based on testimony from confidential informants, without any physical evidence. Human rights groups have also documented cases of confessions obtained by torture inside Iraqi jails.
“The criminal justice system remains critically flawed in Iraq,” Amnesty International wrote in a report in July. “Trials, particularly of defendants facing charges under the antiterrorism law and possible death sentences, can be grossly unfair, with courts often admitting torture-tainted evidence, including when defendants recant their ‘confessions’ in court.”
Mr. Abadi’s promise to fast-track executions drew sharp criticism from the United Nations. “Given the weaknesses of the Iraqi justice system, and the current environment in Iraq, I am gravely concerned that innocent people have been and may continue to be convicted and executed, resulting in gross, irreversible miscarriages of justice,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement issued this month. “Fast-tracking executions will only accelerate injustice.”
Iraqi officials see things differently, and said on Sunday that the executions were the result of fair trials and that the sentences had been approved by the president in accordance with Iraqi law.
“This is simple restitution to the martyrs’ families,” said Yahiya al-Nasiri, the governor of Dhi Qar Province, where the executions took place. “Today, the Iraqi judicial system did its work. Today is an important day for the families, to see the people who killed their sons executed in front of their eyes.”
Not all relatives of the Camp Speicher victims expressed satisfaction with the executions. Many believe that the massacre victims, who were mainly low-ranking military recruits, were abandoned and betrayed by senior officers when the Islamic State militants advanced on the air base.
“I’m not interested in the execution of these people,” Khalaf Edan, who lost a son at Speicher, said on Sunday. “I would be happier if I attended the execution of one of the military commanders who caused this massacre.”
Source: The New York Times, Omar al-Jawoshy, Tim Arango, August 21, 2016. Omar al-Jawoshy reported from Baghdad, and Tim Arango from Istanbul. Employees of The New York Times contributed reporting from Najaf and Hilla, Iraq.
Executions will not eliminate security threats
The execution of 36 men in Iraq yesterday marks an alarming rise in the authorities' use of the death penalty in response to the dramatic security threats the country is facing, said Amnesty International today.
The men were convicted over the killing of 1,700 military cadets at Speicher military camp near Trikrit in June 2014, after a deeply-flawed mass trial which lasted only a few hours, and relied on "confessions" extracted under torture.
"These mass executions mark a chilling increase in Iraq's use of the death penalty," said Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Director for Research at Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Regional Office.
"Time and time again, Amnesty International has emphasized that victims' families have the right to truth and called for justice for the atrocities committed by the armed group calling itself the Islamic State. However, executing men who were forced to 'confess' under torture and were not given a proper chance to defend themselves is not justice.
"Relying on executions to counter Iraq's security challenges is completely misguided. It does not address the root causes of deadly attacks and will only serve to perpetuate the cycle of violence. The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment and there is no credible evidence that shows it serves as more of a deterrent to crime than a prison term."
Only thorough, fair and transparent trials will deliver justice for victims of deadly attacks and their families.
Amnesty International had raised the Speicher case during a meeting in Baghdad on 4 August 2016 with the Special Committee in the Presidency Office established last year to speed up executions, and explicitly appealed for the President not to ratify the death sentences for these men.
The organization is calling on the Iraqi authorities to immediately establish an official moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty. Pending abolition, Parliament should remove the death penalty from legislation and respect all international standards applying to the use of the death penalty.
One of the men executed "confessed" to killing 60 cadets at Speicher after receiving threats that his wife and sisters would be raped. He was also beaten with cables and given electric shocks. Video evidence shows the man being punched in the face during interrogation and "confessing" on Iraqi TV with a visible bruise under his right eye. Even though he recanted this "confession" in court, according to lawyers it was used to justify its verdict. The court did not order an independent investigation into his and other defendants' allegations of torture.
40 people were convicted over the Speicher massacre in February 2016. On 31 July the verdict was upheld for 36 of the men and the Iraqi President ratified the executions on 14 August.
The Iraqi authorities have come under increasing political and public pressure to speed up executions, particularly following the deadly attack on Karrada, a shopping district in Baghdad on 2 July, which claimed nearly 300 lives.
In the wake of the attack, the Ministry of Justice announced 7 executions were carried out on 4 and 5 July. It stated that there were up to 3,000 individuals on death row.
Amendments were also introduced to Iraq's criminal code on 12 July making it more difficult for defendants sentenced to death to seek a retrial.
At least 81 executions have been carried out in Iraq so far in 2016, and at least 123 people sentenced to death.
Source: Amnesty International USA, August 22, 2016
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