Hatam Kareem received the telephone call on Sunday that he had been waiting for, saying the men who killed his brother had been executed by hanging. “It was the happiest call I have ever received,” he said.
Thousands of other Iraqis shared his happiness on Sunday over the executions of 36 men convicted and sentenced to death for taking part in the Islamic State’s massacre of roughly 1,700 Shiite military personnel in 2014.
The massacre, at the Camp Speicher air base near Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, is the deadliest atrocity to date carried out by the Sunni militants of the Islamic State, either in Iraq or in Syria. The crime galvanized Iraq’s historically oppressed Shiites, who have been in power since the 2003 American invasion, and took up a place in their collective memory alongside the atrocities Mr. Hussein inflicted on them.
Video images of the massacre that were made and released by the Islamic State showed killing on an industrial scale, with one man after another being shot in the head and pushed into the flowing waters of the Tigris River. Other victims were killed on land and buried in mass graves. A survivor, speaking to The New York Times in 2014, described how he heard a bullet whiz past his head, then played dead in a pile of bodies and hid out for three days among the reeds along the river.
Iraqi forces recaptured Tikrit from the Islamic State in 2015, and the riverbank became a site of pilgrimage, visited by relatives of victims from mainly Shiite southern Iraq.
Iraqi officials said that the 36 convicts were executed on Sunday at a prison in Nasiriya in the south. The death chamber was crowded with the families of Camp Speicher victims who were invited to watch the executions. The convicts were hanged one by one, as women wailed and howled, their tears of joy mixing with tears of sadness, and men hugged each other in celebration, according to a prison official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
After the completed executions were announced, Sabah Radhi, whose brother was killed at Camp Speicher, said: “Today is the day of victory for all of us, the day where happiness has entered our broken hearts. We have been waiting for this day since the massacre, and it’s finally come true.”
Mr. Radhi said that as soon as he heard the news, he called his uncle, who lost a son at Camp Speicher. “He was very happy,” Mr. Radhi said. “He felt that the Iraqi justice system has taken revenge for his son.”
The convictions and death sentences were handed down this year. After anIslamic State bombing in Baghdad last month killed roughly 300 people, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promised to speed up executions of convicted Islamic State terrorists.
Activists have long criticized Iraq’s use of the death penalty because of the problems plaguing the country’s justice system and the number of convictions based on testimony from confidential informants, without any physical evidence. Human rights groups have also documented cases of confessions obtained by torture inside Iraqi jails.
“The criminal justice system remains critically flawed in Iraq,” Amnesty International wrote in a report in July. “Trials, particularly of defendants facing charges under the antiterrorism law and possible death sentences, can be grossly unfair, with courts often admitting torture-tainted evidence, including when defendants recant their ‘confessions’ in court.”
Mr. Abadi’s promise to fast-track executions drew sharp criticism from the United Nations. “Given the weaknesses of the Iraqi justice system, and the current environment in Iraq, I am gravely concerned that innocent people have been and may continue to be convicted and executed, resulting in gross, irreversible miscarriages of justice,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement issued this month. “Fast-tracking executions will only accelerate injustice.”
Iraqi officials see things differently, and said on Sunday that the executions were the result of fair trials and that the sentences had been approved by the president in accordance with Iraqi law.
“This is simple restitution to the martyrs’ families,” said Yahiya al-Nasiri, the governor of Dhi Qar Province, where the executions took place. “Today, the Iraqi judicial system did its work. Today is an important day for the families, to see the people who killed their sons executed in front of their eyes.”
Not all relatives of the Camp Speicher victims expressed satisfaction with the executions. Many believe that the massacre victims, who were mainly low-ranking military recruits, were abandoned and betrayed by senior officers when the Islamic State militants advanced on the air base.
“I’m not interested in the execution of these people,” Khalaf Edan, who lost a son at Speicher, said on Sunday. “I would be happier if I attended the execution of one of the military commanders who caused this massacre.”