As Iraq's political tension ratchets up following the death sentence imposed on its fugitive vice president, human rights groups have expressed fears the Shia-led government may be using state-sanctioned executions to eliminate opponents held in prison.
Stories of torture are also coming from released prisoners and human rights investigators, which directly contradict the claims of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.
A spate of executions were carried out last month. Three women were among 21 prisoners executed on August 27 alone. Two days later, five more detainees were put to death. For its part, the government continues the ongoing trend of providing few details about the identity of executed prisoners, or the charges against them.
Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi - now in exile in Turkey - sent a letter to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani requesting his intervention "to stop the arbitrary and ever-increasing rate of executions in Iraq".
Days after al-Hashemi sent the letter, the al-Maliki government sentenced him to death in absentia for allegedly killing a Shia security official and a lawyer.
The al-Hashemi death sentence underscores the precarious political divide between Shia and Sunni leaders in Iraq, and raises questions about exactly who is being executed - and why.
"I am appalled about the level of executions in Iraq."
- Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur
Iraq's Justice Ministry said there were 96 executions so far for 2012, with another 196 people on death row. Many Iraqis, including former detainees, believe the number is much higher than what the government is reporting.
Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said he was alarmed by reports of individuals who remain at risk of execution. "I am appalled about the level of executions in Iraq. I deeply deplore the executions carried out this week," Heyns said in August.
The recent surge in state-sanctioned killings has also drawn sharp criticism from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who called it "a sharp increase from previous years".
"Given the lack of transparency in court proceedings, and the very wide range of offences for which the death penalty can be imposed in Iraq, this is truly a shocking figure," Pillay said on Monday.
Iraqi authorities say all of those executed had been convicted on charges "related to terrorism". But the government has offered little information about the specific crimes those executed had committed.
Al Jazeera requested comment from the Justice Ministry, but no response was received.
'Huge problem with torture'
The day after US forces withdrew from the country last year, al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for al-Hashemi, sparking an ongoing political crisis within the fragile government. A wave of violence swept across the country during the following weeks, killing and wounding hundreds of Iraqis, and raising the spectre of civil war.
Al-Maliki's Shia-led government responded with mass detentions in largely Sunni areas, and a huge upswing in the number of executions followed, sparking accusations of sectarianism, as well as using political power to settle old scores.
A second wave of detentions and executions preceded the Arab League Summit held in Baghdad in March, when government forces orchestrated raids and round-ups in predominantly Sunni areas.
Now, critics are concerned a third wave of detentions and executions is underway.
"I want to know where my sons are ... People say they are in secret prisons. I have been searching for six years already, but it is no use."
- Iraqi mother in Baghdad
At least two secret prisons have been revealed during investigations by New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"I want to know where my sons are, someone please tell me where they are," an Iraqi woman in Baghdad, who asked not to be named, told Al Jazeera. "People say they are in secret prisons. I have been searching for six years already, but it is no use."
Human Rights Watch's deputy Middle East director, Joe Stork, said Iraq "has a huge problem with torture and unfair trials".
The group reported recent executions included one Saudi and one Syrian citizen. It expressed concern that Iraqi authorities rarely announce executions beforehand, and have not yet made public the total number of executions in any given year.
More than 1,200 people are believed to have been sentenced to death in Iraq since 2004, according to the UN. The government has yet to publicly reveal the total number of prisoners executed since then.
Iraqi law authorises the death penalty for close to 50 crimes, including terrorism, kidnapping, and murder, but also for offenses such as damage to public property.
'Intentional state terror'
Mohammed Saleh, a generator operator, was executed in February 2012. His wife Shai'maa told Al Jazeera she believes her husband was killed by the government "as a scapegoat to compensate the lost members of Shia families".
When she used to visit her husband in prison, Saleh said she saw scars and bruises on his body. "My husband told me they were mistreated, tortured, and abused in order to force them to admit their crimes," she said.
Lisa Hajjar is a professor of sociology at University of California Santa Barbara and a visiting professor at American
|The Ministry of Justice renovated and reopened Abu Ghraib prison, renaming it Baghdad Central Prison [GALLO/GETTY]
University Beirut. Her work focuses on torture and detention issues in the context of war.
She said the situation in Iraq is common in ongoing civil wars, with the regime in power attempting to eliminate opponents from the past. Hajjar described the executions and torture as "intentional state terror".
"I call it terroristic torture," Hajjar told Al Jazeera. "When people are tortured or there are extrajudicial executions, the purpose is to dissuade others. The goal is to create a visible spectacle, and the purpose is to terrorize communities into quiescence."
Rights groups are calling for an immediate cessation of executions.
"The lack of transparency around these convictions and executions, in a country where confessions that may have been coerced are often the only evidence against a person, makes it crucial for Iraq to declare an immediate moratorium," Stork said in a press release.
Techniques of torture
Ahmed Hassan, a 43-year-old taxi driver, was detained by Iraqi police at his home in the Adhamiyah district of Baghdad in December 2008. He was charged with "terrorism", and held in a federal police prison in nearby Khadimiyah.
Hassan said the prison was run by the Ministry of Interior, but alleged it was overseen by Prime Minister al-Maliki himself.
He said he was regularly tortured and held in a six-by-four metre cell with "at least 120 detainees, with a small toilet that has no door, and scarce running water". Prisoners received one meal a day that was often undercooked. And it was so crowded that "most of us would be forced to sleep standing", he said.
Hassan explained that his jailors had "various techniques of torture".
"They forced me to drink huge amounts of water and then would tie up the head of my penis so I could not urinate. This was really harmful to me," said Hassan.
Another method was to "take off my fingernails with a pair of pliers, one by one" so Hassan would "make confessions for things I did not do", he said.
Hassan said he was also hung upside down from his feet, his head placed in a bucket of water, while he was whipped with plastic rods.
Innocent after all
Hassan was released in April this year.
"History always repeats itself, and Maliki is behaving like Saddam. If you continue turning a deaf ear and blind eye to this oppression, one day you will end up like Saddam Hussein."
-Ahmed Hassan, former prisoner
"They told me I did not fall into the category of terrorism, and the report that had been filed against me was inconsistent with their investigation and eyewitness testimonies," he said.
Hassan said torture is ongoing and other clandestine prisons are operating. "In the Green Zone there is a secret prison, and also another prison near Baghdad International Airport," he said.
The Justice Ministry has not responded to Al Jazeera's request for comment on Hassan's allegations.
According to a statement by Iraq's parliament on August 30, Iraq's Human Rights Committee had met to discuss "a mechanism for slowing down executions". Members of the committee told Iraqi media they had contacted Justice Minister Hassan al-Shammari to enquire if the execution of nearly 200 prisoners on death-row had been accelerated, ahead of the passage of an amnesty law now before the Iraqi parliament. Al-Shammari denied the allegation.
Hundreds of inmates began a hunger strike on August 28 in Baghdad's Taji and Rusafa prisons to protest recent executions, and the alleged plan to speed up state-sanctioned killings before the amnesty law is adopted, said Human Rights Watch.
Al Jazeera asked former detainee Hassan what he thought Prime Minister al-Maliki should do to rectify the situation.
"I would tell him that history always repeats itself, and Maliki is behaving like Saddam," he said, referring to the long-ruling Iraqi dictator. "If you continue turning a deaf ear and blind eye to this oppression, one day you will end up like Saddam Hussein."