27 are hanged at Abu Ghraib in first mass execution since Saddam's fall
The brutal excesses of Saddam Hussein's regime were relived yesterday as Iraq's new government announced that it had hanged 27 prisoners convicted of terror and criminal charges.
Mass executions at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, which has several gallows erected in the execution chamber, were suspended after coalition-led troops overthrew Saddam three years ago. The death penalty was reinstituted in 2004, and yesterday's executions took place just days after control of Abu Ghraib was handed over to the Iraqi authorities.
An Iraqi Justice Ministry official said two of those hanged had been convicted of terrorism charges, and the other 25 – including a woman – were convicted of murder and kidnap.
News of the executions was made public by Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, when he attended a ceremony to mark the transfer of control of Iraq's military from the United States to the recently elected government.
"This is the message I have for the terrorists," he said of the hanged prisoners, "we will see that you get great punishment wherever you are. There is nothing for you but prison and punishment."
The government's media office later confirmed that the sentences had been carried out on Wednesday. It also called the prisoners "terrorists", a name normally reserved for insurgents who have attacked coalition or Iraqi forces.
Mass executions of convicted prisoners took place on an almost weekly basis under Saddam's regime, with Sunday and Wednesday the most popular days.
Saddam himself faces execution if he is convicted on charges relating to a massacre that took place in the Shia town of Dujail in 1982. The verdict in his trial is due next month. The ex-dictator has begged the Iraqi authorities that he be executed by firing squad, rather than by hanging, if he is convicted and sentenced to death.
Hundreds of convicted prisoners are believed to be on death row in Iraq as the authorities have struggled to control the insurgency that has seen the country brought to the brink of civil war by rival Sunni and Shia militias.
The number of detained prisoners in Iraq means that many of the country's prisons, including Abu Ghraib, are suffering from severe overcrowding. Prison authorities recently relocated 3,000 prisoners from Abu Ghraib to an undisclosed location outside Baghdad.
Concern about the Iraqi government's increasingly authoritarian attitude was further heightened yesterday afternoon when it ordered the Arabic satellite channel al-Arabiya to close its Baghdad office for a month.
The station is based in Dubai and is considered to be one of the Middle East's more objective channels. It announced live on air that police had entered its studios in the centre of the city. In July Mr Maliki's office issued a warning to television stations against broadcasting gruesome footage that focused on the victims of insurgent attacks.
The Iraqi government's reputation for openness was also dented after it emerged that the first figures released for civilian casualties in Baghdad in August had widely overstated the success of the US and Iraqi security operation in the capital. It had said last Thursday that the murder rate had dropped by two thirds on the previous month. Most murders in Baghdad at present are the result of sectarian tit-for-tat killings.
But yesterday corrected figures emerged showing there had in fact been almost no change with 1,536 people killed. Officials indicated the mistake may have been to a sudden upsurge in violence in the final week of August that saw more than 250 killed.
The death penalty has an enormous emotional significance in Iraq, as under Saddam special courts were set up to issue death sentences with no appeal. Thousands are believed to have been killed at Abu Ghraib prison.
Iraqi law still specifies that the death penalty is carried out by hanging for civilians and firing squad for soldiers. The death penalty is overwhelmingly supported by the Iraqi public, particularly as punishment for those who commit insurgent atrocities.
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