Tariq Aziz: the death penalty is not a popularity contest

News that Tariq Aziz is to face hanging for crimes committed as deputy prime minister of Iraq isn’t going to lead to an international outcry of the kind we sometimes see with the death penalty.

This, to use the Daily Express’ phrase, is “Saddam Hussein’s henchman” not, for example, a woman sentenced to death for adultery in Iran or a Sri Lankan maid in Saudi Arabia who was reportedly only 17 at the time of her offence.

But should this make any difference to how we respond?

Tariq Aziz is not a popular man. His sentence won’t ruffle feathers in Washington or London (it’ll be interesting, by the way, to see whether the UK government’s recently-launched death penalty abolition initiative will be broad-minded enough for ministers here to oppose the sentence).

But, if you’re against capital punishment in a “sympathetic” case then you should be against it in the “hard” cases like this.

Why? Well, the death penalty isn’t a popularity contest. Amnesty – rightly in my opinion – opposed the execution of Saddam Hussein. Same with the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh.

As it happens, there are longstanding concerns about the shoddy justice dispensed by the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal, the court that passed sentence yesterday on Aziz and other former members of the Saddam regime – Sanani Ibrahim, Abid Hamid Mahmoud, Saboon Shaker and Hikmah al-Misbah. Indeed, Amnesty has previously shown how scores – if not hundreds – of people in Iraq have been tortured into making false confessions which nevertheless saw them receiving death sentences. The roughest of rough justice in other words.

Writing in The Times today (sorry no link here, it’s behind the paywall!), Deborah Haynes says that hanging Aziz “shows that Iraq is more interested in perpetuating the cruelty of the past” than organising itself around principles of justice and human rights. Exactly.

Torture is already endemic in Iraq (as the WikiLeaks disclosures helped to reveal) and so unfortunately is the death penalty. The country is already executing more people than any country in the world except China and Iran.

The Iraqi president Jalal Talabani – who is said to be personally opposed to capital punishment – is formally required to approve any death sentence if, as expected Tariq Aziz and the others have appeals turned down. He should refuse to do so. It probably won’t make him hugely popular in Iraq or elsewhere but, as I say, since when was the death penalty a popularity contest?

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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