The dark side of the 'Arab Spring': A surge in executions, with a 'judicial killing spree' against dissidents reported in Iran, blights the drive towards democracy in the Middle East.Muammar Gaddafi is dead, put to death on 20 October 2011, by a Libyan mob howling for his blood to avenge more than four decades of his megaloma niacal madness.
Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, another tyrant, narrowly survived an attempt to blow him in his own palace in Sana'a on 3 June, but was forced to step down on 27 February.
Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's latter-day Pharaoh, forced to relinquish power on 11 February 2011, is facing a probable death sentence at a Cairo trial, which he attends on a sickbed inside a cage, accused of mass murder and three decades of corruption.
These three former Arab strongmen, who once seemed so invincible and untouchable, were all brought down by the convulsions of the so-called Arab Spring that erupted in Tunisia in January 2011, and is now threatening to topple President Bashar Assad of Syria as well. The man-in-the-street uprisings of the Arab Spring have been hailed as ushering in a new era of democracy in a region long under the heel of tyrannical regimes, kept in power by the Americans and the region's former colonial powers for strategic purposes throughout the Cold War and the Pax Americana that followed.
But regime change, as the fate of these once-unassailable leaders has shown, is a risky, and usually messy, business. One of the more sinister aspects of the dictator-toppling Arab Spring is the marked increase in the number of executions in Middle Eastern states, which many see as intended to stifle that same dissent.
In spite of a "significant reduction" in the number of countries that have the death penalty, Amnesty International (AI) reported a sharp rise in executions in the region.
"The escalating use of the death penalty in the Middle East is seen as a tactic by the authorities to spread fear among dissidents in order to prevent them from participating in pro-democracy movements," Britain's liberal daily, the Guardian observed.
AI said that at least 676 judicial executions are known to have been carried out around the world in 2011, excluding China--where there are reportedly thousands every year--up from 527 a year earlier.
Confirmed executions in the Middle East increased by almost 50% in 2011 to 558, Amnesty noted in its annual report on the death penalty. More than half of the 2011 global total were conducted in Iran, which carried out 360 known executions, compared to at least 252 in 2010.
AI said there were 253 reported executions in the first six months of 2011, with credible evidence that as many as 274 unreported judicial killings, including mass hangings, were carried out in secret in the Islamic Republic last year.
The sharp rise in the number of executions reported in Iran has raised suspicions that the Tehran regime has, in the words of British international affairs analyst Simon Tisdall, "embarked on a judicial killing spree" to intimidate its many opponents.
Human rights organisations say this underlines the alarm within the regime that Iran could be infected by the wave of pro-democracy uprisings that has toppled four dictators across the Arab world in less than a year.
In Iraq, which acknowledged only one execution in 2010, Amnesty reported there were at least 68 executions in 2011. Since US forces completed their withdrawal on 18 December, 2011, leaving behind what the White House insisted was a "stable democracy", human rights activists have reported a surge in official executions, some of which allegedly involved political opponents of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki.
The Shi'ite leader, who was a hunted fugitive himself during the Saddam Hussein era, appears bent on flying in the face of the regional trend toward democracy by systematically eliminating his rivals now that the Americans are not looking over his shoulder.
Human Rights Watch reported on 8 February that 65 people were executed in the first 40 days of 2012, almost as many as the 2011 total of 68.
HRW's deputy Middle East director, Joe Stork, said Maliki had apparently given "the green light to execute at will ... The government needs to declare an immediate moratorium on all executions and begin an overhaul of its flawed criminal justice system."
The Baghdad government, which took control of Iraq's prison when the Americans left, denied it is torturing prisoners, but has announced executions. Justice Minister Hassan Al Shammari declared that 17 "convicted criminals" were executed in one day on 31 January.
The year-old uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has taken a heavy toll, more than 9,000 killed according to the United Nations. The crackdown by the regime's hated security services and staunchly loyal military units like the elite Republican Guard, commanded by Assad's ruthless younger brother, Maher, have been accused of wholesale slaughter by tank fire, artillery bombardments and helicopter gunship attacks.
Thousands of people were thrown into prison, many never to be heard of again. The regime's security forces and secret police are widely believed to have summarily executed an unknown number of suspected activists held in its prisons that hold hundreds, possibly thousands, of political prisoners.
The exact number of victims of extrajudicial executions, the hallmark of tyrannical regimes, is impossible to determine, given the difficulties of getting into Syria to obtain data.
But on 9 April, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Syrian forces and the hired killers of the infamous Shabiba (Ghost) militia had executed more than 100 civilians and rebel fighters, and undoubtedly many more, since late 2011.
Many of the documented killings were carried out on 11-12 March, HRW said, noting that at least 85 of those slain in the flashpoint cities of Horns and Idlib, were people, including women and children, who had taken no part in the fighting.
"In a desperate attempt to crush the uprising, Syrian forces have executed people in cold blood, civilians and oppositions fighters alike," said HRW emergencies researcher Ole Solvang.
"They're doing it broad daylight and in front of witnesses, evidently not concerned about any accountability for their crimes ... Syrian security services will stop the executions only if they sense that accountability is inevitable. It's up to the Security Council to send this message."
Libya remains in ferment months after the Gadaffi regime was toppled and the veteran strongman later beaten to death in the street. Competing militias clash frequently as they jostle for power and influence as the interim government of the National Transitional Council struggles to impose order and stability.
Remnants of the Gadaffi regime are prime targets for these heavily armed groups. Human Rights Watch says 53 people, all suspected Gadaffi loyalists, were apparently executed at the Hotel Mahari in Sirte in October by rebels from Misrata who overran that area.
"We found 53 decomposing bodies ... at the abandoned hotel and some had their hands bound behind them when they were shot," said HRW's emergencies director Peter Bouckaert. More than 8,500 detainees, most of them accused of being Gadaffi loyalists, are currently being held by militia groups at about 60 locations, says
UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay. So other executions may have been carried out. Amnesty has reported several deaths from torture, which it says is widespread in Libya and "carried out by officially recognised military and security entities, as well as a multitude of armed militias operating outside any legal framework".
Medecins Sans Frontieres, a Paris-based medical aid group, said on 26 January that since August its personnel had seen evidence of torture like "cigarette burns, bone fractures, tissue burns from electric shocks and renal failure from beatings ...
"Patients were brought to us in the middle of interrogation for medical care, in order to make them fit for further interrogation," MSF Director-General Christopher Stokes said. "This is unacceptable."
"A long list of abuses and missteps have led some to say that Libya hasn't changed much since the barbarism of Gaddafi," observed John Glaser of the US-based Antiwar.com website.
In a way, Iran laid the groundwork for the Arab Spring with massive street protests triggered by the hotly disputed 2009 presidential election that the reformist opposition, battered by the Islamist regime's Praetorian Guard, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, claimed was rigged to give the hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second four-year term.
Thousands of dissidents were arrested and continue to be harassed and persecuted. Ironically, the unrest broke out two years before the so-called Arab Spring.
Human rights activists say the clerical regime has been executing scores of dissidents, usually identifying them as drug dealers or smugglers. Amnesty noted in an earlier report that of at least 600 executions in Iran in January-November 2011, a minimum of 488 were carried out for alleged narcotics offences. Admittedly Iran, a key route to the west for heroin smugglers from neighbouring Afghanistan and Pakistan, has an enormous drug problem and its treatment of those involved, including addicts, is extremely harsh under the mullahs' stern rule.
But in February 2011, Shirin Ebadi, Iranian human rights activist and former judge, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, accused Tehran of using criminal charges, narcotics in particular, to ma-sk executions for political purposes. These take place behind the forbidding walls of notorious prisons like Evin in Tehran, where thousands have perished since the 1979 Islamic Revolution (as indeed they did under the Shah's rule) and Vakilabad in the eastern holy city of Mashhad, a major smuggling hub for heroin from Afghanistan.
Amnesty said it had received reports of secret mass executions in Vakilabad, with 89 people hanged there in August 2010. A former inmate told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran that he witnessed 46 executions in one day there in October 2009.
"A second-term presidency launched amid bloodily suppressed riots in 2009 now appears to be assuming an even more vicious character as reports accumulate of ongoing secret mass executions and new waves of political repression," observed Tisdall.