Fallujah, Iraq – For three years, Nadiha Hilal has begun each day waiting to hear if she’s become a widow.
Hilal’s husband has been awaiting execution since he was sentenced to death in 2009, along with 10 other people in a case that illustrates Iraq’s deeply troubled criminal justice system.
Iraq’s Justice Ministry said the number of prisoners given death sentences is classified. It won’t reveal even the specific crimes of which they’ve been convicted.
But international human rights groups said they believe 3,000 Iraqis have been sentenced to death since 2005, when capital punishment was reinstated. The figure gives Iraq one of the highest rates of death sentences in the world.
Its criminal justice system, meanwhile, is among the least transparent.
Hilal’s ordeal began when her husband – a taxi driver with the unfortunate name of Saddam Hussein – was arrested in Baghdad. The name was common before the 2003 war, but with the fall of the previous regime it now guarantees harsh treatment by Iraqi authorities.
“They pulled out his fingernails, then they used electricity on him. Sometimes they put me in front of him but I couldn’t look at him.“
– Nadiha Hilal, wife of Iraqi inmate
The day after he was arrested, Hilal said police came for her.
“They put blank papers in front of him and told him to either sign it or they were going to put me in the women’s prison and even arrest his daughters,” she told Al Jazeera in an interview on the outskirts of Fallujah, about 70 kilometres west of the capital Baghdad.
In a room next to her husband, Hilal said she could hear him screaming as he was tortured.
“They pulled out his fingernails, then they used electricity on him,” said Hilal. “Sometimes they put me in front of him but I couldn’t look at him. They just put me there so he could see me, to let him know they had arrested me.”
Hilal, 25, with three little girls, said they told him they would torture her the same way if he didn’t sign the papers. A few days after he signed what turned out to be a confession to involvement in the suicide bombing of the Foreign and Finance Ministries, she was released.
Lawyer Badea Aref represents Saddam Hussein Hilal and 10 others sentenced to death in the same case. Al-Qaeda in Iraq operative Munaf al-Rawi admitted that he had organised the same bombings. Aref said he obtained a statement from al-Rawi that his clients were not among those involved.
Aref said he has obtained a stay of execution five times for his clients since they were sentenced – the last one five months ago after they had been brought to the execution square, just an hour before they were to be hanged. All 11 showed signs of torture, he said.
“We are waiting for a re-investigation and a re-trial. It is a race against time,” said Aref.
The Interior Ministry, responsible for the detention facilities in which most abuses are believed to occur, rejected accusations of systematic torture and said it investigates any allegations brought to its attention.
|An Iraqi soldier guards prisoners in April 2010 [AFP]|
The Justice Ministry said torture might happen in isolated incidents, but is exaggerated by the media.
“The international community has not been fair with the Iraqi people,” said Justice Ministry spokesman Haider al-Sadee. “When there is an explosion in America the whole world is rocked and countries are invaded as a result. But when Iraq defends its rights and executes a person after convicting him of a crime, international organisations condemn it.
“Speaking as an Iraqi citizen …I believe the least that should be done to show justice to the families of victims is to execute them publicly,” al-Sadee said.
Amnesty International and other groups say much of the torture stems from an almost sole reliance on confessions to obtain convictions. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent in investigative training by the United States and other countries, cases rarely rely on forensic evidence. The use of secret informers, lack of legal representation, and widespread corruption also stack the deck against those accused.
In Aref’s office, stacks of hand-written statements from prisoners tell the same stories that human rights groups say is prevalent among those facing terrorism charges.
“They began using my wife and children. They threatened to rape my wife in front of me if I didn’t confess,” read one statement. The prisoner said even after he was sentenced to death, his wife and young children were held for five months without any charges laid.
Another prisoner titles a statement signed on May, 27 2012 “after 1,825 days of injustice”. He named the police officers allegedly involved in torturing him and asked, “Is there anybody who can support me and remove this injustice from me and my people?”
Fallujah, where anti-government protests started in December against the broad anti-terrorism law many are imprisoned under, has borne much of the brunt of mass arrests. The law, known as Article 4, allows the death penalty for a wide range of offences broadly categorised as terrorism.
Before Sunni tribes turned against al-Qaeda, Fallujah was a stronghold of the organisation and counter-terrorism operations, not known for their precision, are still focused on Al Anbar province.
In a house on the outskirts of Fallujah, Mohammad Abbas Ferhan laid out tiny identification photos of his dead sons, the only photos he has. Youssef and Omar were 14 and 17, respectively, in June, 2007 when they were taken by police for questioning. Ferhan said he was told they were at the local police station. The next time he saw them was to identify their bodies. They had been killed and dumped in the desert, he told Al Jazeera, then taken to the morgue by American soldiers.
Two of his other sons, Ishaq and Mustafa, were sentenced to death in 2009 and are waiting to be executed.
“I’m not sure of the details of their case,” he said. “I just know there were explosions in Baghdad and they were accused of doing them.”
A phone call with one death row prisoner painted a picture in which a charge of terrorism warrants beatings and torture from the moment the suspect is admitted, to long after they have been convicted.
The prisoner, who said he would be tortured further if his name was used, said he had been beaten with cables and plastic hoses, and tortured with electricity charges on his tongue and genitals.
“The investigative officers came to us asking us to confess to release our wives, or they would never see daylight again.“
– Iraqi prisoner
“They kept on torturing us … until we signed certain papers. We didn’t know what was on them,” he said, speaking from a mobile phone obtained by bribing a guard. “We were not referred to a judge at all. The investigative officers came to us asking us to confess to release our wives, or they would never see daylight again.”
He said in one prison up to 20 people were kept in a small bathroom. “They put us in this bathroom handcuffed and every three hours they call for investigation and then the torture session starts,” he said.
Those who could pay $40,000 to $100,000 were allowed to go free, he said. Those who couldn’t pay were forced to implicate people they didn’t know in crimes if they wanted their own wives and children to be freed, he added.
“I’ve been in five prisons so far and I’ve seen mostly young people or elderly ones, all of them held under Article 4,” he said. “Some of them were arrested in place of their cousins, or brothers or relatives … Even now whenever they take us to any prison once they know we are kept under Article 4 terrorism, they start beating or torturing us or putting us in solitary confinement.”
None of them, he said, know when they will be executed.