Iraq: "I Won't Testify"

by Jim Loney

Reprinted from the Toronto Star, May 23, 2007.

On Nov. 26, 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, a 54-year-old U.S. citizen, was found dead on the streets of Baghdad on March 9, 2006, of multiple gunshot wounds. Two weeks later, Harmeet Singh Sooden, 34, and myself, 42, both Canadians, were rescued along with Briton Norman Kember, 75, by British and U.S. soldiers.

In November last year, we were told that an unspecified number of men alleged to be our kidnappers were in U.S. 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 Central Criminal Court.

We learned that, in one day, New York Times journalist Michael Moss witnessed five 15-minute trials in which all of the defendants were found guilty and handed harsh prison terms. Many of the defendants who appeared in court never saw a lawyer. The court’s proceedings are normally closed to the public and there are instances where the U.S. continued to detain people even after their cases were dismissed.

A recent report from the UN Assistance Mission to Iraq says the Criminal Court “consistently failed to meet minimum fair trial standards.” Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark calls the CCCI a “meat grinder.” Amnesty International says at least 100 people have been executed and up to 270 more have been condemned to death by the Iraq Criminal Court.

According to TIME magazine, “Hangings are conducted in secret, at a heavily fortified location in Baghdad ... Only a few officials are notified beforehand and the vast majority of the names of those executed are never made public.”

Many of those sentenced to death did not receive fair trials. Citing televised pre-trial “confessions,” some procured through torture or ill-treatment, and insufficient access to lawyers, Amnesty International 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 prisoners to Iraqi jurisdiction. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has requested that all death sentences be commuted.

One 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 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 American 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 Munaf and five other defendants in the case. According to Mr. Izzat, the entire proceeding lasted 90 minutes; 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 judgment. Take away the fancy legal rationale 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.

The U.S. entered Iraq with guns saying Iraq was a threat. Insurgents took up guns in turn to get rid of the U.S. and its guns. Both sides are caught in a blind death spiral where the only options are to kill or be killed.

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.