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Iraq Transition

Woman's plea from death row: I'm innocent

Story Highlights

• Iraqi woman sentenced to hang in killings of 3 relatives
• Woman says she was tortured into confessing a role in the slayings
• New Amnesty International study says many "confessions" are being coerced
• Amnesty, another group are working to commute death sentences of 4 women
By Arwa Damon
CNN
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Sitting on Iraq's death row is a 25-year-old woman convicted in the slayings of three relatives. She says her husband carried out the killings and fled. She confessed to being an accomplice, she says, only after being tortured in police custody.

Despite lingering questions about the case, the fate of Samar Saed Abdullah remains the gallows.

"I am innocent," she told CNN from inside the al-Kadhimiya Women's Prison in Baghdad. "The judge did not hear me out. He refused to hear anything I have to say. He just sentenced me." (Watch Abdullah cry as she tells her story Video)

According to Amnesty International, such claims are not uncommon in Iraq, which has the fourth-highest execution rate in the world.

Amnesty issued a report last month that concluded sentences in Iraq increasingly follow flawed trials and coerced confessions.

"In many cases, death sentences have been issued following proceedings which failed to meet international fair trial standards," the report said. "This represents a profoundly retrograde step."

The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority abolished capital punishment in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. But shortly after the government was handed over to Iraqis, the death penalty was reinstated in August 2004.

Since that time, more than 270 people have been sentenced to death, and at least 100 people -- including Hussein -- have been executed, according to Amnesty. Four women are currently on death row. Two of the women have their young children, ages 1 and 3, with them on death row, Amnesty says.

Tried and convicted in 1 day

Abdullah is among the death-row women.

She is accused of being an accessory to the murder of her uncle, aunt and cousin -- slayings that allegedly were carried out at their family home by her husband.

In the court documents from her trial, she admitted to confessing she had gone to her uncle's house with her husband with the intent to steal, but she says she made that confession as a result of being tortured.

In reaching its verdict, the court disregarded her testimony on the grounds that her confession was closer to the date of the crime.

She was tried and convicted in a single day, August 15, 2005.

"She didn't confess," her mother, Hana'a Abdul Hakim, told CNN. "It was from the beating they gave her. She was bleeding. She finally said write what you want, just stop."

Under Iraqi law, her claim to confessing under torture should have been investigated, but it wasn't. CNN's repeated queries to the Higher Judicial Council and the Ministry of Justice went unanswered.

"The judiciary is no longer involved, and nothing can be done unless new evidence comes to light, which is unlikely," her appeals lawyer, Ali Azzawi, said.

Father: I wouldn't see her if she was guilty

Inside the prison, Abdullah's voice trembles with fear, her large brown eyes fill with tears and her hands nervously clench.

"Give me life in prison, 20 years. Anything but this," she said from the prison's "sewing room."

She holds out hope for an appeal, but she doesn't know that the appeal has already been rejected. No one -- not even her own family -- has the heart to tell her the appeals court upheld her death sentence three months ago.

"I couldn't tell her," her mother said. "I was afraid that she would do something to herself."

Through her tears, the mother's agony is palpable. At this point, she says she'll take anything for her daughter: life in prison, a lesser sentence. Anything but the death sentence.

The family says their daughter met her husband, Saif Ali Nur, in the winter of 2004. They didn't approve of him at first, but eventually gave the couple their blessing.

Three months later, the mother says, the couple was driving to get gas when Nur suggested they stop at the uncle's house. They did just that.

Their daughter was in the kitchen washing dishes when, according to the mother, her husband locked the kitchen door and gunshots rang out. Nur is alleged to have killed her uncle, aunt and cousin.

Then, the mother says, he held Abdullah at gunpoint demanding to know where the uncle kept money and gold.

"He dragged her," the mother said. "Samar kept telling him she didn't know where the money was."

The husband left with less than $1,000 and some jewelry. The next day, he dumped his wife at the end of her street and threatened to kill her and the rest of her family if she told authorities, the family said.

Abdullah was arrested by Iraqi police that same day.

The court testimony from her trial mirrors the account the mother told CNN.

"If I thought she was guilty, I swear, I wouldn't go see her. She would get the punishment she deserves, but this is such a severe sentence," her father, Saed Abdul Majid, said.

Every Wednesday is gallows day

Amnesty International has appealed Iraqi authorities on behalf of Abdullah and the other three women on Iraq's death row. Another group inside Iraq, the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, is also seeking to save them.

The group's head, Dalal Rubaie, says they have successfully appealed cases of two women, including one on death row who, she says, confessed after extensive torture.

"She had her fingernails pulled; she was hung from the ceiling; they took pictures of her naked while she was hanging; they cuffed her to a bed and raped her," Rubaie says.

Rubaie's organization delivered a letter from the woman that detailed her allegations to the government and made it public on the Internet. She is now awaiting a retrial while her claim is being investigated.

As for Abdullah, she dreads every Wednesday, never knowing if it will be her last day alive. Wednesday is execution day in Iraq, when inmates are led unannounced to the gallows.

"I don't sleep at all on Wednesdays," she said. "I stay scared all day."

She survived today, but there's always next Wednesday.


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Samar Saed Abdullah says she was tortured into confessing a role in the killings of three relatives, including her cousin.

SPECIAL REPORT

• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide
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