Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Iraq’s uneasy amnesty

A new amnesty law in Iraq has raised fears of impunity being given to terrorists, human rights abusers and corrupt officials, writes Salah Nasrawi

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The hope must be that the general amnesty law that the Iraqi parliament passed last week is aimed at bringing an end to the grievances of the country’s Sunni minority at its exclusion by the majority Shia, paving the way to much-needed national reconciliation in the war-battered nation.

However, a closer look at Iraq’s situation shows that the controversial law highlights the country’s repeated failure to confront the dilemmas of division and transformation and events that are still shrouded in mystery, ignorance and fear.

More pertinently perhaps, the law, believed to have been pushed by the Obama administration as part of efforts to engage the Iraqi Shia and Sunnis in the post-Islamic State (IS) rebuilding of the country, does not seem likely to produce more peaceful, stable and prosperous outcomes in Iraq.

The Iraqi parliament passed the draft law on 25 August after long delays and several rewritings. Iraqi official television reported that the parliament had passed the bill with a majority of 234 lawmakers present in the 328-member assembly.

Under the new law, Iraqis convicted, sentenced or still under investigation for crimes are eligible to apply for amnesty, except those who have been accused or convicted of specific crimes stated in the law.

Among Iraqis who are exempted from the amnesty are those involved in “crimes against state security,” “acts of terror resulting in death or permanent disability,” “human trafficking,” “rape, sodomy and incest” and “money laundering.”

On 1 September, the bill was ratified by Iraqi president Fouad Masoum, making it effective immediately after it is published in the Iraqi Chronicle, the official journal of the government.

If the law is implemented, which remains to be seen, it would pardon almost anyone facing charges arising from Iraq’s political chaos from 2003 to 2011.

It is widely expected that the bill will give partial or total amnesty to thousands of prisoners (some say nearly 36,000) who have been in prison, some since 2004, without proper judicial procedures.

Most of these inmates are believed to be Sunnis in prison on charges of terrorism, but Sunni political groups claim that many of them have been jailed without solid evidence.

Hundreds who are also expected to benefit from the pardons are followers of the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who were detained during the period in office of former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki as part of a crackdown on al-Sadr’s paramilitary Jaish al-Mahdi Army.

Before the amnesty law was passed the parliament enacted a law that severely restricted the role of former Iraqi president Saddam’s Hussein’s Baath Party in a move intended in part to placate the Shia. 

Yet, the new law has already polarised the country along sectarian lines, as debates among both Shia and Sunni politicians over its terms and who should be covered by the amnesty have raised a flurry of concerns from members of the two communities.

Soon after it was passed the law came under fire from Shia politicians and some lawmakers who described it as offering covert support for Sunni insurgents, even though these politicians have signed up to it.

Some Shia leaders, including prime minister Haider al-Abadi, said they believed the law would lead to the release of IS terrorists under the pretext of confessions having been obtained from them by torture or under duress.

Al-Abadi blamed the final document on amendments made by the parliament to the draft submitted by the government. The government had wanted to make all abductions a criminal offense, he said, but the parliament had insisted on only criminalising kidnappings resulting in death or permanent disability.

On Monday, the Iraqi media reported that al-Abadi had asked the parliament to amend articles that would make it more difficult for “terrorists” to be pardoned.

Meanwhile, many Sunni political leaders and lawmakers have expressed their dissatisfaction with the amnesty law, which they consider to be too little too late. They said the amnesty law was part of a deal al-Abadi had signed with the Sunni blocs before they had joined his “national partnership” government in 2014.

The angry rhetoric from both sides, however, has failed to hide the hypocrisy and double dealing made by the blocs in passing the law when they have vested political interests and need to find a compromise.

In addition, the law was the result of enormous pressure reportedly put by the United States on the Shia-led government to get it passed before the US-backed offensive to take back the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from IS starts.

Washington believes that in order to stabilise Iraq after the military campaign against the IS militants is over a national-reconciliation process that includes an amnesty for Sunni insurgents should be initiated.

The most pressing question remains whether the controversial law will be enough to end more than 13 years of sectarian conflict and bring peace and stability to Iraq.

Under the new law, there will be judicial committees set up to decide whether convicts deserve a retrial or whether prisoners who think they were jailed due to torture or false information should be retried.

Investigating judges and competent courts will be charged with implementing the provisions of the new statute. If a convict is ruled ineligible for amnesty, he or she will be able to appeal to the country’s highest court.

If the recent past is any guide, many Iraqis will question whether the country’s democracy is stable enough or its judicial system effective enough to withstand the daunting challenges of healing the nation’s wounds and ensuring peace and justice.

There have been questions as to whether Iraq’s courts will be able to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of the crimes that have taken place in the country, some of which, such as rape, mass killings, kidnappings and inhuman treatment, come under international human rights law.

Some Iraqis argue that there may be a need to use international mechanisms in order to ensure that those responsible for human rights abuses in Iraq are brought to account.

One of the suggestions that have been made is that Iraq should consider acceding to the Rome Statute that set up the International Criminal Court and accept the tribunal’s jurisdiction with respect to violations in the country.

More generally, a reflection on the content of past debates on amnesty in Iraq suggests that there is probably a need to focus on whether the country will be able to rebuild itself and institutionalise democracy without at the same time meeting demands for justice from all Iraqis.

A simple way for Iraqi politicians to begin this process would be to work to address issues of guilt and responsibility and to end leniency, corruption and most importantly the impunity that has often been granted to those who have perpetrated crimes against humanity.

Cases such as bombings targeting innocent civilians, abductions, the ransacking of houses, extrajudicial executions, torture and abuses by security personnel and members of pro-government militias have underlined the need for proper legal procedures to be put in place in order to address human rights violations.

The main lesson from the debate over the amnesty law is that it is high time for Iraq to outline an accord on transitional justice that will deal with the crimes of the past and the present rather than merely seeking short-term solutions to the country’s lingering problems.

Such a system should aim to find a compromise between peace, truth and justice. The families of the hundreds of thousands of victims of past crimes are uncomfortable about the amnesty law because they say it will be difficult to forgive either the Sunni insurgents who helped give rise to IS and the atrocities it perpetrated or the security forces and government-backed militias responsible for ferocious abuses.

Many people in Iraq hope that the pressure of a transitional justice system will ensure accountability for the perpetrators and reparation for the victims of today’s crimes and will lead to prosecutions for past atrocities and help to bring comfort to the victims and peace to the country as a whole.

Many say that Iraq’s new amnesty law is hasty and flawed and will not help to end the country’s problems, however. They fear that a system that was incapable of stopping atrocities, human rights violations and rampant graft will now also find itself incapable of confronting post-war violence, crime and corruption.

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