The U.S.-backed government in Baghdad is facing harsh criticism from the international community for ignoring calls to adopt a policy of restraint with regard to carrying out death sentences against the members of Iraq's former ruling party.
Reacting to the hanging of Saddam Hussein's two close aides Monday, senior U.N. officials and human rights organisations warned that the government must end its policy of executions, which they see as serious violation of international human rights standards.
"Those responsible for serious human rights violations must be brought to justice," said Louise Arbour, the top U.N. official for human rights. "But to be credible and durable, the fight against impunity must be based on respect for international human rights standards."
"The imposition of the death penalty after a trial and appeal proceedings that do not respect the principles of due process amounts to a violation of the right to life," she said in a statement.
Hussein's half-brother Awad Hamed Al-Bandar and former intelligence chief Barzan Ibrahim Al-Tikriti were hanged early Monday morning despite calls from Arbour and others to commute their sentences.
Both Al-Bandar and Al-Tikriti were condemned to death for the killings of 148 Shias in 1982. Reports from Baghdad said Barzan's hanging left behind a headless body, bloodied at the neck.
Arbour, who opposes the death penalty "under all circumstances", said that in Al-Tikriti and Al-Bandar's case, "not only is the penalty irredeemable, it may also make it more difficult to have a complete judicial accounting of other, equally horrendous, crimes committed in Iraq."
Like Arbour, Ban Ki-moon, the new U.N. chief, seemed equally displeased with the Iraqi authorities' decision.
"He fully regrets that despite pleas by the high commissioner, they were executed," Ban's spokesperson Michele Montas told reporters. Clarifying his views on Hussein's execution, Ban said last week he believed that life "is precious" and that it must be "protected and respected".
Noting that international law affirms these values, the U.N. secretary-general said he recognised the "growing trend in international law and national practice towards phasing out the death penalty."
While Ban and other U.N. officials chose to confine their criticism of the executions to Iraqi authorities, rights activists said the U.S. government must be held equally accountable.
"If the international community is to restore confidence in the rule of law in Iraq, it must prosecute the individuals for the international crime of aggression against the Iraqi people," said Dr. Curtis Doebbler, an international human rights lawyer.
In Doebbler's view, only by calling for such prosecutions can the international community restore trust in the rule of law. "Failure to do so," he cautioned, "will send a clear message to vulnerable people everywhere who have been subjected to U.S. aggression that they cannot depend on the rule of law to stop the U.S. and its collaborators from violating their most basic human rights."
Speaking to reporters in Egypt, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended the executions by saying that it was an "Iraqi process". However, she expressed her displeasure with the way the executions were actually carried out. "We were disappointed there was not greater dignity given to the accused under these circumstances," she said.
Deploring the executions in strong words, the London-based human rights watchdog group Amnesty International said such actions were nothing but "a further slide into the errors of the past."
The group said the Iraqi court failed to meet international standards for a fair trial and raised serious questions about its impartiality and ability to assert independence from political intervention.
During the trial of Hussein and his aides, many believe that authorities forced the first presiding judge to step down and blocked the other's appointment while failing to ensure protection for witnesses as well as defence lawyers, three of whom were assassinated during the course of the trial.
Amnesty also noted that Hussein was denied access to legal counsel for the first year after his arrest, and said the appeals process was conducted in "haste and failed to rectify any of flaws of the first trial."
In addition to Monday's executions, rights groups expressed concern about the possibility of a death sentence for Taha Yassin Ramadhan, the former vice president. Though already sentenced to life imprisonment, he is likely to face another trial.
Reports from Baghdad said the hangings took place in the same building in the city where Hussein was executed on Dec. 30 and that the bodies of Al-Bandar and Al-Tikriti were flown to their ancestral town of Tikrit for burial.
According to Amnesty International, the use of death penalty has been on the rise in Iraq since its reintroduction inn August 2004. Last year, at least 65 people were executed, many of them after unfair trials, the group said.
© Copyright 2007 IPS - Inter Press Service