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Disorder in Iraq’s Courts

Times Staff Writer

Court is in session, the Hon. Naim Hasan Salman presiding -- that is, if the lights stay on and the defendants show up.

Neither is guaranteed. Frequent blackouts carve chunks out of the court day, and the American forces who control Iraq’s prisons are too tangled in logistical and security concerns to release many defendants for trial on time.

As Iraq struggles through a severe crime wave, the courthouse in Karkh, a district in the capital, is a reminder that the criminal justice system is not ready for prime time. Overwhelmed investigators are stymied by the onslaught of violent offenses. The quality of their cases is so questionable that judges -- who also operate as juries here -- convict only 40% of the accused.

Bodyguards patrol hallways to protect both judges and defendants from assassination and blood feuds. Meanwhile, insurgents are targeting police investigators with suicide bombings and street shootings.

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On this day, the courthouse has both electricity and a handful of defendants. So Judge Salman and his fellow black-robed jurists on the three-judge panel take their seats. Ninety minutes later, they have freed two accused thieves for lack of evidence and ordered two other cases continued because witnesses were too scared to testify.

Back in his office, Salman, an amiable, 20-year veteran of the bench with a salt-and-pepper mustache and a booming voice, philosophically notes: “One hundred percent justice is with Allah only.”

Saddam Hussein’s government generally left the country’s criminal courts alone. Political show trials and detention cases were handled by a parallel system of “intelligence” courts. The government could afford to ignore the criminal courts -- street crime was a rarity under Hussein.

The government allowed the judicial system to proceed as it had for decades -- under the Napoleonic code, in which judges conduct questioning and mete out sentences in accordance with existing laws. The defendant has a right to trial in open court and to confront the accuser. The prosecutor and defense attorney act more as advisors than advocates.

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Now, with killings, kidnappings and carjackings up since the fall of Hussein, those who work at the Karkh courthouse are just trying to keep up. The courtyard of the squat, two-story building is usually crammed with people waiting their turn in the civil or family law courts. The sole felony trial courtroom, one of a handful of criminal courts in Baghdad, is off to the side, behind a plain door.

“Things are getting from bad to worse,” investigator Hadi Said observes between his interrogations of a gang of accused kidnappers.

Court investigators such as Said -- a balding 42-year-old in a rumpled charcoal suit -- labor in a two-story annex to the main courthouse. At the entrance, a worker who is deaf and mute frisks visitors for weapons, then holds out his hand for a tip. Inside, a warren of cramped offices houses investigators and judges for the investigations court.

The judges here decide, sometimes without holding a hearing, whether there is enough evidence to send the accused to trial next door. In the chaotic world of Iraqi criminal justice, how soon the trial takes place is anyone’s guess.

Said is lucky today -- the five kidnappers are novices. They quickly confess that they abducted the young son of a goldsmith and held him for five days while a tribal sheik negotiated the ransom.

Things rarely go this smoothly. Most of those arrested are professional crooks who can withstand pressure, police say. The occupation authorities have banned torture, once common. Americans “want the accused person to confess without any pressure,” Said grumbles to a visitor. “This is not possible. Maybe in your society, but not here.”

Police Capt. Jaffar Raheem Abdullah seconds that sentiment. Sitting on a bench in the hallway, Abdullah recalls that police were once able to use muscle to coax confessions.

Even a kidnapper who confesses today could be liberated in court, Abdullah cautions. “He confesses here, and he goes to another judge and denies everything,” the captain says. “He knows that even if he confesses here, he’ll deny it there and be set free.”

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That’s just what happens in the trial courtroom on the day that it has both electricity and defendants. Salman calls Case No. 211. The defendants, dressed in bright red jail jumpsuits, shuffle into the dock below the judges’ bench. Prosecutor May Sheik and defense attorney Imtithal Safi sit at raised desks on opposite ends of the courtroom.

Hassan Kadhim Quti and Raheem Ibrahim are accused of stealing iron rods from a government factory. Police found Ibrahim asleep in his truck outside the robbed factory, piles of rods around the wheels. He confessed to the theft and implicated Quti, who also confessed. But today they tell a different story.

“I don’t know this man,” Quti says, nodding at Ibrahim.

“Why did he give your name to police?” Salman asks. Quti shrugs.

Ibrahim says that his truck broke down outside the looted warehouse and he dozed off, only to be awakened by police.

Salman asks the prosecutor for her opinion. She says that because there are no witnesses to the crime and the defendants now deny it, the charges should be dismissed.

After less than five minutes of deliberations among the three judges, Quti and Ibrahim are released.

In the next case, three police officers testify that they interrupted two defendants who had hijacked a car, then were fired upon as they gave pursuit. But the car’s owner appears to be hiding from police and cannot be found. The frustrated judges order the case continued until police locate the victim.

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Finally, Hassan Fadel, 28, shuffles into the dock. He’s accused of breaking into Najim Abdullah’s house, terrorizing his family and stealing money and gold. The thieves were reportedly chased out at gunpoint by Abdullah’s son, and police caught Fadel.

The white-haired Abdullah looks nervous as he swears on the Koran to tell the truth.

“I have never seen this man,” Abdullah says of Fadel.

Salman loses his patience. “You are in front of the judge!” he snaps.

“We don’t have a gun,” Abdullah blurts out nervously, apparently referring to the reported gun battle in his home. “I swear it.”

The case is continued, and defense attorney Safi pleads with Abdullah to let his son come to court to testify. “This is the fourth time we’ve postponed this,” the attorney says as Abdullah slips out.

Salman returns to his office, nodding to his son and nephew who sit outside as bodyguards. The judge surveys the bare walls -- the courthouse was looted after the fall of Hussein, and all the offices are barren. Salman says all the men who appeared that morning are probably guilty.

“The fear is more now,” he says. “People are afraid. The eyewitnesses are afraid, the complainer is afraid. They are afraid of the accused.”

Still, Salman says, the situation is better than under Hussein. “The police, they would just stick the accusations against someone with no evidence,” he says. “They would torture people with no evidence.”

Salman fulfilled a childhood dream by becoming a judge in 1984. His mission, he says, is to ensure equality and fight favoritism.

He proudly tells of cases in which he rebuffed suggestions from Hussein’s government that he go easy on defendants with connections. He is also proud of the 40% conviction rate in his courtroom -- an indication to him that the system is not blindly sending defendants to prison.

A greater frustration is that for the next two days, no cases are called. The police say they are unable to persuade the Americans who run the jails to release inmates who are awaiting their court dates.

An accused murderer finally shows up, along with police armed with assault rifles to chase off any relatives of the victim who may seek revenge. The defendant sits on a folding chair in a corner of the court building for an hour, then leaves with police. The suspect was released to court so late in the day that one judge had gone home.

The next day, no defendants appear. “Before, by 9 or 10 a.m., you would find nine or 10 cases here,” says Majid Ahmed, a court administrator. “It’s humiliating. Every day we are waiting, and we cannot do anything.”

Not only do they hold prisoners who should be sent to court for trial, but the Americans also have been known to release some who have not been tried. In November, the military released a man who was accused of killing the brother of a court employee. Ahmed keeps the letter of apology from an Army major in his office. “We expect the same crime to be repeated,” he says.

American officials did not respond to requests for comment. Previously they had acknowledged problems coordinating with the Iraqi courts, but now say they are working to improve matters. They point to the fact that they managed to get the nation’s courts back in business last May, one month after Hussein’s fall.

Salman likes America. His son lives in Los Angeles, and Salman bubbles with enthusiasm about the new Iraq. But he bristles at being unable to resolve crimes because of a geopolitical logjam.

“These cases,” Salman says, “belong to Iraqis.”

Riccardi was recently on assignment in Iraq.


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