People chant anti-terrorism slogans to protest the Islamic State's blockade, in Baghdad's Tahrir Square, on August 28, 2014.

People chant anti-terrorism slogans to protest the Islamic State's blockade, in Baghdad's Tahrir Square, on August 28, 2014. Hadi Mizban/AP

Executions Could Be Iraq's Real Challenge to Unity

The UN warns that the rising number of death sentences in the country's courts fuels sectarian violence—and empowers ISIS. By Allen McDuffee

On Saturday, Iraq formed a new unity government: Parliament approved Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, a Shiite, for the role of interior minister, and Khaled al-Obeidi, a Sunni, as defense minister. But one day later, the United Nations published a report saying that the extreme use of the death penalty and "irreversible miscarriages of justice" in the country are fueling sectarian conflict.

The report, which came from the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the sharp increase has translated into 177 executions in 2013, with as many as 34 in a single day. This year, 80 executions—mostly hangings—have been carried out; another 1,724 prisoners were on death row as of August.

"The large numbers of people who are sentenced to death in Iraq is alarming, especially since many of these convictions are based on questionable evidence and systemic failures in the administration of justice," said Nickolay Mladenov, the UN's envoy to Iraq.

The report said that most defendants appear in court unrepresented or with court-appointed lawyers who are ill-prepared; in half the trials the UN monitored, judges ignored claims that defendants had been tortured until they provided a confession. According to Amnesty International, China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are the only countries that have executed more of their citizens than Iraq since 2007.

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"Given the weaknesses of the criminal justice system in Iraq, executing individuals whose guilt may be questionable merely compounds the sense of injustice and alienation among certain sectors of the population," said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein. He added that this dynamic "serves as one of the contributing factors that is exploited by extremists to fuel the violence," referring to the belief of some officials and strategists that the influence of ISIS can by curbed by building a more inclusive government.

The death penalty, which was used as a way of governing under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, was suspended in 2003 while Iraq was governed by the Coalition Provisional Authority. It was reinstated in 2005.