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Iraq hangs 21 men for terrorism at notorious Nasiriyah prison

The men had been convicted under a 2005 counterterrorism law but there were no details on their specific crimes 
Iraq ranks fifth among countries that carry out death sentences, according to Amnesty International (Reuters)

Iraq executed 21 men convicted of terrorism on Monday at the notorious Nasiriyah prison in the country's south, medical and police sources said.

The Iraqi men from various provinces had all been convicted under a 2005 counterterrorism law, which carries the death penalty, but there were no details on their specific crimes. 

The prisoners were hanged in Nasiriyah jail in Dhi Qar province, the only one in Iraq that carries out capital punishment.

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It is known for holding condemned ex-officials of the Saddam Hussein regime, which was toppled by the 2003 US-led invasion. 

Iraqis fearfully refer to Nasiriyah jail as Al-Hut, or the whale, a vast prison complex that "swallows people up".

Since declaring Islamic State (IS) defeated in late 2017, Iraq has condemned hundreds of its own citizens to death for membership of the group. 

But only a small proportion of the sentences have been carried out, as they must be approved by the country's president, currently Barham Salih.

Police sources confirmed to AFP that Salih had signed off on Monday's executions.

Iraq's courts have also tried dozens of foreign nationals for alleged IS membership, condemning 11 French citizens and one Belgian national to death. Those sentences have not been carried out.

Rushed trials accusation

Iraq ranks fifth among countries that carry out death sentences, according to Amnesty International, which documented 100 executions in the country in 2019. 

That amounts to one out of seven executions across the world last year.

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Amnesty and other rights groups accuse Iraq's justice system of corruption, of carrying out rushed trials using circumstantial evidence, and failing to allow the accused a proper defence or access to lawyers.

They also condemn cramped conditions in detention centres, where cells built to hold around 20 detainees are often packed with 50, a source working in the jails told AFP.

Those arrested for petty crimes are often held with hardened fighters, which has facilitated radicalisation in the past, experts say.

Iraq's government has declined to provide figures on detention centres or prisoners, including how many are facing terrorism-related charges, although some studies estimate 20,000 are being held for purported IS links.

Some facilities have shut down in recent years, including Baghdad's Abu Ghraib complex that became infamous for prisoner abuse during the United States-led occupation.

Others were rocked by riots and prison breaks that allowed detainees accused of terrorism to escape.

Many women whose husbands, brothers or sons were suspected fighters still live in displacement camps around the country.

They have very little freedom of movement, even to access health care or schooling for their children, with NGOs condemning the settlements as "prison camps".