BAGHDAD -- With increasing regularity, Iraq's condemned prisoners are rounded from their cells in groups. One by one, they are led down a hallway to the execution chamber where they are hanged, the sound of the trapdoor reverberating through the cells. There is no advance notice, no last meal, no goodbyes.
There were 21 people hanged on Wednesday, eight earlier this month and 12 more in mid-March. Iraq's justice minister said that at least 9 more had been executed this year.
There are reports that the Justice Ministry plans to execute about 150 in coming days -- eclipsing the 129 prisoners executed last year, which was nearly double the 68 people hanged in 2011.
"Executing prisoners in batches like this is obscene," said Navi Pillay, the United Nations human rights chief, in a statement released in Geneva on Friday that was the harshest yet toward an Iraqi government that has drastically increased the number of executions since the withdrawal of American forces at the end of 2011.
"It is like processing animals in a slaughterhouse," added Ms. Pillay, who said she was "appalled" by recent reports that the Justice Ministry planned to execute a large group in the coming days.
Iraq's application of the death penalty is particularly egregious, human rights advocates say, because convictions are often based on confessions induced by torture or the testimony of confidential informants. Ms. Pillay said Iraq's judicial system was "too seriously flawed to warrant even a limited application of the death penalty, let alone dozens of executions at a time."
She continued, "The application of the death penalty in these circumstances is unconscionable, as any miscarriage of justice as a result of capital punishment cannot be undone."
A Justice Ministry spokesman could not be reached Friday evening to comment on Ms. Pillay's statement, but Iraqi officials have defended the government's use of the death penalty as a necessary measure to combat terrorism. The government says that the latest group of prisoners to be hanged were all members of Al Qaeda in Iraq involved in bombings and assassinations and that it executes only those convicted of terrorism and serious crimes against civilians. The latest executions came amid preparations for local elections this weekend, the first since the withdrawal of United States forces in 2011. The campaign has been marred by a wave of bombings causing heavy casualties.
In a statement released this week after the 21 prisoners were executed, Justice Minister Hasan al-Shammari said, "The Ministry of Justice had to carry out the punishment against those killers that have shed innocent Iraqi blood."
He said the ministry would "continue to implement the measures of the judiciary against the terrorist murderers."
In an interview, Izzat al-Shahbandar, a member of Parliament who is a close aide to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, issued a sharp rebuke to Ms. Pillay.
"This statement means nothing to us," Mr. Shahbandar said. "The people that have been executed are criminals. The timing of the executions is up to the judiciary and government authorities, and they don't have the right to interfere in our internal issues."
Referring to the international community, Mr. Shahbandar said, "Where were they when Saddam was killing hundreds of people each day?"
Then he referred to the tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis killed during the past 10 years and said "now the human rights people are shedding their tears" for the executed prisoners. He said the executions were carried out according to international law, and he invited Ms. Pillay to "come and watch some of them."
Ms. Pillay's statement reflected a growing sense of outrage among human rights advocates toward the rise in executions in Iraq, and the harshness of the statement was welcomed by those who have been raising alarms for some time. Amnesty International has said Iraq ranked among the world's top five executioners last year, along with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
"I think it's the strongest statement I've ever heard her make about anything," said Erin Evers, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch who has recently interviewed death row inmates in Iraq.
Executions here are carried out in a single location: a prison in the Kadhimiya neighborhood of the capital that is otherwise known for its famous Shiite shrine. Under Saddam Hussein, the prison was known as a place Iraqis went to disappear, and then Mr. Hussein himself was executed there after the American invasion toppled his government. Now, about 1,400 prisoners -- including 38 women -- sit on death row.
After a conviction, a prisoner can wait years to die -- or a couple of weeks if a family member of a victim has political clout -- never knowing if each day is the last, rights activists say.
The administration of the death penalty today is particularly inhumane, activists say, not only because of the flaws in the judiciary, but because family members of the condemned are not allowed a last visit. In fact, they are often not even notified after an execution, left to make panicked inquiries when an execution is reported in the news media.
"Someone with a family member on death row is left to wonder, 'Is that my son? Is that my daughter?' " Ms. Evers said.
Tim Arango reported from Baghdad, and Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva. Duraid Adnan contributed reporting from Baghdad.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.