On November 26th, 2005, I was kidnapped in Baghdad. My associates and I, all members of a Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation, were held by Iraqi insurgents for four months. Tom Fox, an American (age 54), was found dead on the streets of Baghdad on March 9th, 2006, of multiple gunshot wounds. Two weeks later, Harmeet Singh Sooden (age 34) and myself (age 42), both Canadians, were rescued along with Briton Norman Kember (age 75) by British and American soldiers.
In November of last year, we were told that an unspecified number of men alleged to be our kidnappers are in US custody. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Scotland Yard want us to testify in a trial to be conducted in the Central Criminal Court of Iraq (CCCI). An RCMP officer told us, "The death penalty is on the table."
Faced with a momentous, life-and-death decision, we learned everything we could about the CCCI. The New York Times offered a rare glimpse into the opaque world of the CCCI. In one day of observing the court's proceedings, journalist Michael Moss witnessed five, fifteen-minute trials in which all of the defendants were found guilty and handed harsh prison terms. Many of the defendants appeared in court without having seen a lawyer. The court's proceedings are normally closed to the public, and there are instances where the US continued to detain people even after their cases were dismissed.
A recent report from the UN Assistance Mission to Iraq says the CCCI "consistently failed to meet minimum fair trial standards." Former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark calls the CCCI a "meat grinder." "It reminds me of the reign of terror in Paris," he says. "You guillotine some, imprison others—it's unclear who's more fortunate."
Amnesty International (AI) says at least 100 people have been executed and at least 270 more have been condemned to death by the CCCI. But, as in the days of Saddam Hussein, nobody knows how busy Iraq's gallows are.
According to TIME, "Hangings are conducted in secret, at a heavily fortified location in BaghdadÃ¢â‚¬Â¦.Only a few officials are notified beforehand, and the vast majority of the names of those executed are never made public." Citing the lack of transparency around the death penalty, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has requested the commutation of all death sentences. The Iraqi government is refusing, arguing capital punishment is a "public deterrence" and its suspension would "undermine our policy on crime."
Many of those sentenced to death did not receive fair trials. Citing televised pre-trial "confessions," confessions procured through torture or ill-treatment, and insufficient access to lawyers, AI is calling for an immediate moratorium on capital punishment in Iraq, and for the United States and Britain to refrain from handing over any condemned prisoner to Iraqi jurisdiction.
One CCCI case that has received public scrutiny involves Mohammed Munaf, an Iraqi-American sentenced to death by the CCCI on October 12, 2006, for orchestrating the kidnapping of three Romanian journalists in 2005.
According to Mr. Munaf's Baghdad attorney, Badie Arrief Izzat, the trial was attended by two American officers. The judges were ready to dismiss the case because no one was coming forward to press charges. Lt. Robert Pirone told the court he had been authorized by the Romanian government to make a formal complaint on behalf of the kidnap victims, all Romanian. The other officer, a general, insisted the men were guilty and should be sentenced to death.
After a private meeting demanded by the two officers, the judges imposed the death penalty on Mr. Munaf and five other defendants in the case. According to Mr. Izzat, the entire proceeding lasted an hour-and-a-half; no evidence and no witnesses were presented to the court.
In a subsequent statement, Romanian Justice Minister Monica Macovei said, "The [Romanian] Embassy has not authorized any American official to represent the Romanian government during the Iraqi judicial procedures, with respect to Mohammed Munaf."
Lt. Pirone is the same liaison officer managing the case against our alleged kidnappers.
A classified Pentagon report says, "Iraq's judiciary is technically independent but unable and unwilling to assert itself or provide a balance to Iraq's powerful political parties." Or its powerful occupier, it seems.
I recently informed the RCMP that I will not testify. I cannot participate in a judicial process where the prospects of a fair trial are negligible, and more crucially, where the death penalty is a possibility.
The death penalty is the legalization of blood vengeance. It is a cruel, degrading and irrevocable judgement. Take away the fancy legal rationales and the dignified court proceedings and what remains is an act of murder, plain and simple, no different than what was done to Tom Fox. Capital punishment is a manifestation of the very violence it claims to deter.
Those who kidnapped us and murdered Tom were swept into a vicious cycle of violence and retribution for violence that was put in motion in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq and its continuing occupation. "What would you do," the captors asked me, "if the Americans invaded Canada? Would you not fight back, become a mujahadeen?"
The US entered Iraq with guns saying Iraq was a threat. Insurgents took up guns in turn to get rid of the US and its guns. Both sides are caught in a blind death spiral where the only options are to kill or be killed. Neither can see that trying to stop a war with guns is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. The only power capable of ending violence is the power of non-violence.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu liked to say there is no future without forgiveness. Norman, Harmeet and I have forgiven our captors. Our reason is very simple. We've had enough with bombs and guns and gallows. We want to see an end to all killing, regardless of the reason. Capital punishment is simply the legal face of the dead-end cycle of violence and retribution for violence that is destroying Iraq. We want to see something genuinely new and different, a future that begins with the power of forgiveness.