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Death penalty returns to Iraq, with a vengeance
Sun May 29

BAGHDAD (AFP) - With four death sentences handed down within the space of days, judicial executions are set to return to Iraq where the authorities are desperate for a deterrent to halt rampant insurgent attacks.

Seven convicted Iraqi criminals and insurgents are currently on death row and although the sentences have yet to be carried out, the interior ministry have vowed that the first hangings will take place next month.

While the looming prospect of executions is worrying human rights groups, the government insists it has no alternative. "We must maintain order and dissuade criminals and terrorists," said government spokesman Leith Kubba.

The death sentence was widely practised under now imprisoned former dictator Saddam Hussein, who himself could face the death penalty if he is ultimately found guilty of charges of crimes against humanity.

Capital punishment was suspended by the former US military commander in Iraq, General Tommy Franks, soon after the invasion, before being reinstated in June last year by the unelected interim Iraqi government.

Three common law criminals were sentenced to death in Karbala, southern Iraq, a month later for the murder of relatives, but the sentences have yet to be carried out.

On May 21 however, Interior Minister Bayan Baqer Solagh ended uncertainty over the use of the death penalty when he said it was "still applicable" and would be rigorously applied.

Since Iraq's first elected government took office in late March, judges have ordered that four men be executed for their crimes.

The day after Solagh's declaration, a special criminal court sentenced three rebels to death for rape, kidnapping and murder, the insurgents sent to death row.

Members of the public attending the trial applauded the sentences and shouted "Long live justice".

And on Wednesday, an Iraqi army captain who served under Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death for killing police and soldiers in insurgent attacks.

The first sentences would be carried out "in the next 10 days", the court said, but no one has been executed yet despite heightened public expectation.

"This is what most Iraqis want," said Kubba.

With insurgent attacks this month having claimed more than 650 lives, the government has the backing of the people -- the main victims of insurgent violence -- to do whatever it takes to stop the violence.

According to a poll conducted by the US International Republican Institute published earlier this month, 60 percent of Iraqis want the nation's constitution, currently being drawn up by lawmakers, to mention "extensive use of the death penalty".

Only 29 percent oppose capital punishment being enshrined in the constitution.

"It is very difficult for Iraqis to live in such a situation of insecurity," said lawyer Nizar al- Sammarai.

"For the time being, we need something to stop (the violence) and that's the death penalty."

Yet research has shown that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent, and is especially unlikely to in Iraq where almost daily suicide bombings testify to a ready supply of people prepared to die for their cause.

"It shouldn't be applied to all criminals, only those who carry out (insurgent) attacks," tempers Abdel Majid al-Sabawi, a professor of constitutional law who wants capital punishment to be repealed once peace is restored.

"The death penalty alone is not enough," he said. "The government must also apply stringent security and political measures."

In addition, Sabawi fears that innocent men may be executed because of failures within the new justice system.

While few Iraqis speak out against the use of the death penalty, foreign rights groups regularly lobby for a moratorium.

"We have written to the government asking them not to apply this law and we call on them not to carry out the sentences already passed," said Amnesty International's Said Boumedouha.

"We are worried about the way in which trials are carried out," he said, slamming such programmes as Iraqiya television's "Terrorists in the Grip of Justice" in which alleged militants confess their crimes, often bearing signs of beatings.

"I recognise that Iraq is faced with serious security problems and that the population has a wish for revenge," said Human Rights Watch's Joe Stork.

"But human rights cannot be decided by public opinion."

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