Quist defends Abdullah al Qahtani, facing imminent risk of execution in Iraq

April 2013

Human Rights in Iraq – Death Penalty

Quist’s client, the Saudi national Abdullah Al-Qahtani has been found guilty of terrorist offences under the renowned ‘Article 4’ of Iraq’s Anti-Terrorism Law. Article 4 has been heavily criticised both internationally and by many Iraqis (including members of the Iraqi Parliament) in light of its vague and far reaching scope. Anyone who can be linked, no matter how tenuously, to a terrorist offence, or an individual involved with anything which may be construed as terrorism faces punishment by death. This Article is the most commonly invoked law used by the Iraqi judicial system and hundreds of individuals are charged under this every year. There is also widespread criticism that it has been used as a subterfuge for political arrests and coercion.

Charges against Abdullah

The Prosecution claimed that Abdullah was involved with an armed robbery on a goldsmith’s shop resulting in the death of the shop owners, which took place on 8th November 2009. It was alleged that this robbery was carried out in order to fund terrorist activities. Abdullah was found guilty and has been sentenced to death by hanging. Abdullah has also been sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for breach of Iraqi immigration law by entering Iraq illegally in order to carry out acts of terrorism. This charge and sentence relies solely on his conviction for the goldsmith’s robbery.

Abdullah was charged, tried and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment without the Court notifying Quist or Abdullah’s Iraqi lawyer of the charges. We were only notified after the sentence was issued when we were sent a copy of the judgment by his Iraqi lawyer.

Abdullah has also been charged under Article 4 for his alleged involvement in the bombings of numerous hotels on 25 January 2010 in which several foreign journalists were killed. A trial date has yet to be set. Copies of the prosecution papers and details of the charges have yet to be served.

Exculpatory evidence

Evidence has come to light that Abdullah was in fact in detention in another Iraqi province when the crimes with which he has been charged were carried out. Quist have received copies of a prison register and a court custody record from Al Anbar province which show that Abdullah was held in detention in Al Anbar from 4 October 2009 to 26 April 2010. The crimes which Abdullah has been charged with committing took place on 8 November 2009 and 25 January 2010: whilst Abdullah was in custody in Al Anbar, more than 100km away from Baghdad where the crimes took place. The Prosecutor has failed to properly investigate this critical exculpatory evidence.

Once this alibi evidence has been verified by the Prosecution authorities, Abdullah’s convictions must be quashed. Accordingly it would also overturn his 15 year sentence, which would be significantly reduced to the usual sentence for immigration offences: around 2 years. In light of the time which Abdullah has already spent in prison (he has been in prison for some 3½ years since May 2010) it is likely that he would be immediately released and deported from Iraq.

Confession evidence

Aside from the exculpatory evidence, we also have significant concerns due to Abdullah’s treatment in general and fundamental weaknesses in the Prosecution case. Abdullah’s treatment and trials are in clear breach of international fair trial standards and show a flagrant disregard for accepted minimum human rights standards and human dignity.Numerous international bodies have voiced concerns that the Iraqi justice system relies almost solely on confession evidence, leaving the criminal justice system wide open to abuse and has undoubtedly lead to many unsafe convictions and miscarriages of justice. Given the routine application of the death penalty, this is deeply concerning.

The only evidence adduced by the Prosecutor was a confession by Abdullah, and the confessions of his co-defendants all of whom have stated that their confessions were extracted by torture. The Court records show that Abdullah and his co-defendants retracted their confessions at their first hearing (this was the first opportunity for them to do so) on the basis that the confessions was not freely given.

Despite these assertions made to the trial court, and without any investigation, the Court found that the allegations of torture were unfounded and proceeded to sentence all defendants to death. All but one of Abdullah’s co-defendants were executed earlier this year.

Quist investigated and found evidence of torture. We visited Abdullah in Kadhimiya prison and recorded details of his brutal torture. At the very least Abdullah deserves to be examined by a doctor in order to ascertain the likely cause of the scarring Abdullah has suffered. Abdullah has still not received any medical assessment since he was taken into custody in May 2010 and no investigation has been undertaken in light of his claims of torture. This is contrary to international law (and indeed domestic law) which places an obligation on the state to undertake a thorough investigation into any allegations of torture.

International law and domestic Iraqi law requires torture claims to be thoroughly investigated and details to be properly documented as admissible evidence. To date the Iraqi authorities have failed Abdullah in this regard.

Any claims that Abdullah’s allegations of torture are spurious are undermined by the fact that Abdullah was detained for some months in ‘Camp Honor’ – a prison camp at which Human Rights Watch highlighted such severe instances of torture that the Iraqi Government agreed to close it following their own independent investigation.

Televised confession

Abdullah was also forced, under threat of violence, to participate in a video recording of his confession. This was subsequently shown on Iraqi television in advance of his trial. Aside from the abhorrent use of violence and torture used to obtain this confession, televised confessions seriously undermine a defendant’s right to the presumption of innocence.

As a result of this broadcast his subsequent trial is therefore unfair and its legitimacy seriously undermined. No individual should be sentenced to death in such circumstances. Abdullah’s treatment falls well below the human rights and fair trials standards expected both under Iraqi and international law.

Potential arguments under domestic Iraqi law

Iraq’s constitution and Criminal Procedure Code (ICPC) are largely in accordance with international standards. Accordingly Abdullah has a strong case under domestic law as well as international law:

Article 19(5) of the Constitution guarantees an accused the right to a fair trial and the right to maintain his innocence until proved guilty on the basis of credible and independent admissible evidence which has survived fair and proper scrutiny. Article 19(4) of the Constitution makes the right to a full and proper defence “sacred”. For the reasons outlined above we do not believe that Abdullah’s trial complied with these requirements and on this basis he has not received a fair trial.

Iraqi law strictly prohibits torture and any form of coercion under Articles 37 A and C of the Iraqi Constitution and Articles 127 and 218 of the ICPC. In the event there is any suggestion of torture, the Court is under a duty to vigorously investigate this. The reason for this is that the Court must be satisfied as to the quality of evidence before it can decide whether it is admissible at trial. Article 213(C) of the ICPC states that the Court can only accept an admission if it is satisfied with it. Given Abdullah’s allegations of torture the Court cannot reasonably be deemed to be satisfied with the inclusion of this evidence at trial, especially given that this is the only evidence upon which the conviction relies.

Moreover it is an absolute rule under Article 37(1)(C) of the Constitution, and Article 127 of the ICPC that evidence or confession obtained by torture (and even lesser coercion) must be excluded. The only evidence in Abdullah’s case (his confession and that of his co-defendants) should therefore be excluded.

It is also noteworthy that the practice of torture is an offence punishable under Article 332 and Article 333 of the Iraqi Penal Code (No.111 of 1969 (as amended to 14 March 2010) (“IPC”)).

An accused is entitled to appeal to the Court of Cassation where a judgment “issued by the Court…. if there was a fundamental error in the standard procedures or in the assessment of the evidence… and this error influenced this Judgment”. In light of the breaches of Iraqi law outlined above, Abdullah should be entitled to an appeal in the Court ofCassation, where his (and his co defendants’) confession evidence should be considered in accordance with the standards prescribed by Iraqi law.

The Court has the power to order a retrial “if after judgment is issued, facts come to light or documents are presented which were not known at the time of the trial, and these prove the innocence of the convicted person”. In light of the exculpatory evidence (the prison register and court custody record) the Court is duty bound to order a retrial to consider this new evidence.

Any reservations as to the validity of the exculpatory evidence can be dispelled as the Court has powers under Articles 163 and 171 ICPC to require the Police Officers and the Judge from Al Anbar to attend the retrial with their files for examination by the Court.

As outlined above we are deeply concerned that Abdullah’s conviction is a grave miscarriage of justice. He has been convicted to death on the basis of a trial which has not met even the most basic and fundamental of standards as consolidated under Iraqi law. The above arguments have been put to the Iraqi Court and we very much hope that Abdullah’s case will be reviewed.

Quist’s strategy

Given the particularly challenging and unconventional nature of Abdullah’s cases, the Iraqi legal system and the volatile political climate, Quist have coordinated a sophisticated international effort and deployed a variety of approaches in order to defend Abdullah which we hope will ultimately save his life.

Quist have continued to work alongside our Iraqi counterparts and have prepared extensive legal representations setting out international human rights standards, the relevant Iraqi law and the breaches thereof. Quist have also actively supported Amnesty International’s extensive lobbying efforts in order to highlight Abdullah’s plight to the wider public. Abdullah has been the subject of 2 urgent action requests.

His case is regularly highlighted by Amnesty through statements and interviews with Abdullah’s family.

Abdullah’s case has also featured in the media through articles in Al Jazeera and the Guardian.

Quist have also facilitated high level lobbying in order to bring Abdullah’s case to the attention of those in Government.