- Human Rights Watch says at least 65 prisoners have been executed in 40 days
- HRW official: Government "seems to have given state executioners the green light"
- Iraq's Ministry of Justice calls it "fair punishment against terrorists and murderers"
- HRW: Many defendants in Iraqi courts are "unable to pursue a meaningful defense"
A human rights group expressed alarm Thursday at the pace of executions in Iraq and called for Iraqi authorities to abolish the practice.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch noted that Iraq has executed at least 65 prisoners since the year began 40 days ago. Fifty-one of the executions occurred in January and 14 so far this month, it said.
"The Iraqi government seems to have given state executioners the green light to execute at will," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The government needs to declare an immediate moratorium on all executions and begin an overhaul of its flawed criminal justice system."
The organization said it was particularly concerned that Iraqi courts use coerced confessions as evidence. "The government should disclose the identities, locations, and status of all prisoners on death row, the crimes for which they have been convicted, court records for their being charged, tried, and sentenced, and details of any impending executions," Human Rights Watch said.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed shock late last month over reports that 34 individuals, including two women, had been executed in Iraq on January 19 following their convictions for crimes.
"Even if the most scrupulous fair trial standards were observed, this would be a terrifying number of executions to take place in a single day," Pillay said.
"Given the lack of transparency in court proceedings, major concerns about due process and fairness of trials, and the very wide range of offenses for which the death penalty can be imposed in Iraq, it is a truly shocking figure."
More than 1,200 people are believed to have been sentenced to death since 2004, though the number executed is not known, she said. The death penalty can be imposed for some four dozen crimes, including damage to public property under certain circumstances, she said.
She called on the Iraqi government to institute a moratorium on instituting the death penalty.
Ministry of Justice officials in Baghdad did not answer their telephones on Thursday. Early this month, Justice Minister Hassan al-Shummari responded to the U.N.'s critique, saying, "The implementation of fair punishment against terrorists and murderers comes in accord with the law of the state."
In a statement on the ministry's website, he said, "Questioning the credibility of the Iraqi judiciary system by the U.N. High Commissioner is (a) strange thing and the High Commissioner should also (be) aware of the size of the challenges that Iraq is facing by terrorist groups who had committed heinous crimes and mass executions against innocent people"
Human Rights Watch says it opposes capital punishment "because of its inhumane nature and its finality." In its statement, the group says that criminal trials in Iraq often violate standards of fairness, right to defense counsel, right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty and not to be compelled to confess.
"Many defendants are unable to pursue a meaningful defense or to challenge evidence against them, and lengthy pretrial detention without judicial review is common," the group says.