Iraqi Women's Death Sentences Spur European Outcry

Death sentences imposed on three Iraqi women--some of them mothers with young children--have spurred international concerns about the conduct of their trials and the abrogation of international prohibitions against the death penalty for new mothers.

March 9, 2007

By Cynthia L. Cooper

(WOMENSENEWS)--In Frankfurt, Germany, protestors planned to erect a scaffold and post a woman under it with a rope around her neck. In Stockholm, Sweden, and Ankara, Turkey, protestors gathered in front of the Iraq embassies. These events, hastily-announced in the past two weeks, were to demand a halt to pending executions by hanging of three young women in Iraq.

The women--Wassan Talib, 31; Zaynab Fahil, 25 and Liqa' Qamar Muhammad, 26-- were charged with vague crimes of acting against the public welfare, according to reports emerging from the war-torn country. Amnesty International issued an "urgent action," asking members around the world to send letters of protest, fearing that the executions were imminent.

The cases underscore worries by human rights organizations about the sufficiency of the justice system in Iraq. Questions have arisen about the fairness of proceedings, the lack of legal representation, transparency in the justice system and use of the death penalty as well as the legitimacy of the legal tribunals themselves.

"If the tribunal under which they were tried does not meet minimal standards, it's bogus. It becomes a lynch mob," said Karen Parker, a lawyer and co-founder of the Association of Humanitarian Lawyers in San Francisco. Parker and her organization endorsed efforts of the Brussels Tribunal, a multinational affiliation of human rights activists who monitor Iraq, to block the executions. The tribunal is coordinated over the Internet by leaders in varied locations.

Incarcerated in Baghdad

Although many details of their cases are unclear, the three women are all charged with activities related to the ongoing conflict in Iraq and are incarcerated in al-Kadhimiya Prison in northern Baghdad. According to information collected by Amnesty International, Wassan Talib and Zayneb Fadhil were sentenced to death by the Central Criminal Court of Iraq on August 31, 2006, after being convicted of killing members of the Iraqi security forces in the Baghdad district of Hay al-Furat in 2005, charges that both deny. Zayneb Fadhil, the mother of a 3-year-old girl, has reportedly said that she was not in the country at the time of the incidents.

Liqa' Qamar Muhammad was convicted of participating in a kidnapping in 2005 and sentenced to death on Feb. 6, 2006. Her husband was detained and charged with the same crime, according to Amnesty International. Muhammad has an infant daughter, who was born in prison and remains there with her.

The International Committee of the National Lawyers Guild, a network of lawyers in the United States, points out that the U.N. has passed a resolution against imposing the death penalty on new mothers. The group called for the Iraqi government to repudiate the executions. "We have received information that these three were denied legal counsel," the group said in a public statement. Denial of counsel violates international guarantees to a fair trial, the group said. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva expressed similar concerns.

High Commissioner Seeks Specifics

"If people are sentenced to death under an unfair trial, that would be illegal in international law," said Jose Diaz, a spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in an interview with Women's eNews. Diaz confirmed that the High Commissioner has been prompted to seek specifics about the women's situations.

In Baghdad, a U.N. official was on the ground doing just that. The official, who asked that her name and title be withheld out of consideration for her safety, told Women's eNews in a phone interview that she has learned that five women are on death row in Iraq. The executions are not imminent, as many feared, she said because of ongoing appeals and because the president has yet to sign execution warrants. But she is still trying to ascertain the legality of the trials that lead to the death sentences. "Absolutely, the question is: 'How fair were the trials? How fair were the investigations?' We don't know how the trials looked, so we don't have the core information."

A fourth woman of concern to Amnesty International is Samar Sa'ad Abdullah, also sentenced to death for the murder of her uncle and four members of his family on Aug. 15, 2005; charges that she denied. Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases, said Sheila Dauer, director of the Women's Human Rights Program of Amnesty International USA in New York. "If the women have been denied fair trials, once you use the death penalty, you can't go back. There can be mistakes, there can be bias."

Embassies Withhold Comment

Officials at the Iraqi embassies in New York and Washington D.C. did not respond to requests for clarification of the women's cases. One employee in the political division of the Republic of Iraq Embassy in Washington, who declined to be identified, said, "A lot of media issued a lot of news for the Iraqi women. We have no idea. The media in our country are free. We cannot give out any statement."

Although there has been minimal publicity about the women in the United States, people in other parts of the world have sent letters of protest, posted on the Web site of the Brussels Tribunal. Among them are the European Women's Lobby, a coalition of 4,000 non-governmental organizations, the European Association of Lawyers for Democracy and World Human Rights, the Italian Association of Democratic Lawyers, and the Iraq Solidarity Association in Stockholm. Over 100 individuals and organizations endorsed a strongly-worded Brussels Tribunal statement "Hanging the womb of Iraq--Stop the executions of 3 Iraqi women."

Parker, who specializes in armed conflict law, asserts that the legal system in Iraq is shattered and needs to be reestablished by Iraqis themselves, instead of utilizing the tribunals set up under U.S. occupation. "If we are going to go there and bring justice to Iraq, we should make sure that every proceeding is squeaky clean. And these tribunals are not," she said.

Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York with a background as a lawyer. She writes frequently about justice issues.

Published by

For more information:

Association of Humanitarian Lawyers

Amnesty International Urgent Action

The Brussels Tribunal