Bright spot in Iraq: the Iraqi judiciary
Every once in a while, I come across a new story that makes me wonder why it's not on the American news media. Despite what some people who have listened to me fulminate about the latest idiotic story I've heard on the (insert communications medium here), I don't actually believe that the American media as a whole is overrun by people who want the US and Iraq to fail and turn Iraq into God only knows what. (There are such people, and I know this based on reading their work. They're fairly easy to spot; they're the people who editorialize in what should be a straight news story.) What I don't understand is why stuff like this following news story doesn't get more play:
By Dinah A. Spritzer
Staff Writer, The Prague Post
9th December, 2004
The Iraqi judiciary is corrupt, inept and relies on barbaric methods to inflict violent punishments on those with the misfortune to enter its chambers.
Wrong, very wrong.
If there is one thing instructors at the second training seminar for Iraqi judges learned at the Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative (CEELI) in Prague, it's that Iraqi judges were well-prepared to resurrect a democratic legal system.
“When I met judges in Baghdad in 2003 and in Prague, they were much more sophisticated than I expected,” said Judith Chirlin, a judge at the Los Angeles Superior Court whose most recent case involved rock star Rod Stewart's cancellation of a concert tour in South America. (He lost).
Chirlin was one of five international legal experts at a two-week training program for 50 judges that kicked off Nov. 26.
“I have spent a lot more time explaining the concept of an independent judiciary to Eastern Europeans who did not have this tradition,” she said. “But the Iraqis get the concept rather easily.”
Nonetheless, due to the takeover of the Baath party in 1968 and the draconian rule of Saddam Hussein, a legal system that was once the pride of the Arab world was greatly deformed, said Madhat Al Mahmood, Iraq's Chief Justice.
“It was a system adaptable to the needs of a dictator,” he said during an exclusive interview at the luxurious turn-of-the-century Vinohrady villa where CEELI is based.
“Defense attorneys were rubber stamps. There were no cross-examinations, no custody hearings. The police could just throw someone in jail and leave them there,” explained Christian Ahlund, a CEELI instructor and executive director of the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC), a Sweden-based organization that sponsors the seminars with financial support from the Czech and British governments. The CEELI institute in Prague, which is partly funded by the U.S. government as well as corporate donations, is operated by the American Bar Association.
The institute's mission is to reintroduce judicial independence to courts from countries in emerging democracies. “The Iraqis take these courses more seriously than any other country group we have had,” said CEELI institute executive director Michael Diedring. “The have a lot at stake. In Iraq, most judges travel with a weapon or a bodyguard. One of the judges who was supposed to attend this seminar was just assassinated,” he said.
Al Mahmood, watching closely over the traveling judges like a worried grandparent, repeatedly requested that contact with the Iraqis be limited. “It is their first time out of the country, and I would prefer they get used to the experience before speaking with the media,” he said.
No such acclimation period was needed for judges who easily spoke their minds during a seminar coffee break.
Iraq's first female judge, who has been on the bench for 26 years, is an elegant woman in her 50s with pink polished nails, headscarf and movie star make-up. Bakiza A. Mohamed A. was full of praise for a lecture on a computer system that tracks cases.
“This is so interesting and important for us. We are still writing up cases by hand,” she said. “Can you imagine that I manually write up about 20 cases a day, staying up till 3 a.m.? The best part is that when I return to Baghdad, I can share everything I learned with my colleagues.”
One of three female seminar attendees, Akeela M. Abdul Rasol, whose headscarf bore the insignia of Pierre Cardin, explained that although she was qualified as judge in 1980, she was forbidden to practice until the after the U.S. invasion of Iraq last year.
“Unmarried women were banned from being judges under Saddam, so I never got a chance,” she said. That experience left her with a very personal drive to treat others fairly. “I want to provide equal treatment for every party. I will never practice any kind of discrimination.”
The basis for the fair trials that Abdul Rasol hopes to preside over is the UN International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. Iraq was one of the first nations to ratify that document in the 1960s. It is technically the law of the land; at the CEELI seminar, judges are learning how to use it for the first time, Ahlund said.
Seminar topics also include DNA testing of evidence, ethics, media freedom and community outreach.
During a small group discussion on trial procedures, Ahlund was particularly impressed with the level of debate over the role of prosecutors and attorneys.
The Iraqi legal system is based on French and Egyptian law, in which the judge is “omnipotent and closely identifies with the prosecutor,” Ahlund said.
But the international covenant guarantees equality of arms, meaning the prosecutor and defense attorneys need to be equally matched. “Iraqi judges have expressed very understandable concerns about this, since it is generally agreed that their defense attorneys are poorly trained,” Ahlund said.
Chirlin points out that the Iraqis have a pretty good legal platform on which to build, since Iraqi law is the world's oldest legal system based on the rule of King Hammurabi in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) 6,000 years ago.
Islamic law, or Shariah, is frequently applied in family cases but judges also rely on laws enacted during the French colonial period. Baathization then took its toll beginning in the 1960s.
Last year about 170 judges accused of corruption were removed by the Coalition Provisional Authority following the U.S.-led invasion. Evidence obtained through torture was common in Iraqi courts, according to Ahlund, a practice that is now banned.
“Most important is that the judges who came to Prague are hearing about the progress that has been achieved in the world while they were living for 35 years under totalitarianism,” Al Mahmood said.
He insists that the only cure for the current turmoil in Iraq is to push even harder for democracy. “If a toddler is trying to walk and falls, do you put him to bed and leave him there? No, you let him learn to walk.”
— Sulaiman Fahad was the translator during interviews with the Iraqi judges in this report.
Personally speaking, this is a beautiful thing. The Iraqi judiciary looks like it's much better equipped to handle an independent judiciary working within a democratic legal system than either the Germans or Japanese were following the Second World War. Considering that they've been working under the rule of the Iraqi Ba'ath Party (look up the history of the Ba'ath Party some time), that's nothing short of incredible. The fact that a seminar on how to build an independent judiciary devoted to the rule of law is being held in what was Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia just adds to the beauty.