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Iraqi jurists find themselves in a hazardous occupation

Times Staff Writer

At a new fortified complex here, Iraqi judges have become virtual prisoners, living side by side with the inmates they try.

Western guards patrol the compound, ensuring that criminal elements stay either in the complex’s massive detention center, or outside the walls. In SUVs mounted with machine guns, the judges ride from their living quarters in a former police barracks past the detention center housing 5,000 detainees to a makeshift courtroom five minutes away, complete with wooden bench, black robes, video cameras and gold scales of justice embossed on the wall.

A ring of concrete barriers surrounds it all, reminiscent of Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone across the river, but overshadowed by distinctly east Baghdad landmarks, including Saddam Hussein’s Olympic Stadium and the teeming Shiite Muslim enclave of Sadr City.

A few Iraqi judges have moved into the fortified judicial compound to protect their loved ones and to shield themselves from intimidation. Some judges and their families have not left the Rusafa Rule of Law Complex in months.

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Since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, 31 judges have been assassinated in Iraq and scores have lost family members, said Army Col. Mark Martins, a staff judge advocate and legal advisor to Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American military commander in Iraq.

The killings, blamed on criminals and sectarian militias, drew widespread attention during Hussein’s trials, when several judges on the special tribunal were targeted, despite efforts to conceal their identities.

Now the Rusafa judges are preparing to decide their first major corruption case against a man known simply as “Col. A.” It is a test of the new Iraqi legal system, which U.S. advisors say is designed to ensure that corruption cases go to trial, judges are protected from intimidation, convictions are based on solid evidence and innocent detainees are released quickly.

“Judges will, if they’re protected and their families are protected, make independent judgments and follow evidence where it leads,” Martins said during a visit to the complex, which Martins called a “safe haven” for judges.

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Renovated and staffed using $48.8 million from the Iraqi government, the complex is modeled on fortified courthouses in beleaguered countries such as Colombia where judges are often intimidated and killed. It opened in April, the first of several such facilities planned across Iraq.

Without the added security, Martins said, judges are pressured to dismiss or downgrade charges against powerful officials, particularly since Iraqi and U.S. forces stepped up security during the last four months, sending more militants to court.

“They’re human,” Martins said of the judges, “and if their family is threatened they will respond to that.”

Col. A is charged with human rights violations in connection with the torture of Sunni Arab prisoners at an Iraqi National Police detention center in west Baghdad called Site 4. The center was shut down after a joint U.S. and Iraqi inspection in May 2006 revealed that more than 1,400 prisoners were crammed into the small space, some of them showing signs of torture.

The chief judge for the Col. A case said he felt “comfortable” at the complex, where he has lived since May with his wife and two adult sons. His wife mostly stays inside the former barracks, in an upstairs apartment she decorated with plush sofas, tasseled drapes and woven rugs.

Downstairs, children play at a pingpong table and on the playground outside, next to a barricaded parking lot. Visitors, even relatives, are screened at security checkpoints.

The judge, a 57-year-old Sunni Arab, says he has never feared for his safety, but he asked that his name not be printed and that his image be obscured in photographs as a security precaution.

“The nature of our work means we get threatened because we handle criminal cases,” he said, adding that he has not been threatened personally, but that he knows fellow judges who have, including a civil law judge killed recently in west Baghdad.

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Judges can ask to be transferred from a case, but few do, the chief judge said.

“It’s real evidence that he’s invested in this process that he’s made this his home,” said Michael Walther, director of the U.S. military’s Law and Order Task Force, which is working with the Iraqi government to redesign the judiciary.

The chief judge’s wife later confided that she and other relatives are concerned, even in the fortified complex. But they are also proud of his work.

“I’m very happy to see him where he is. He is taking care of the people who corrupted our country,” she said over a glass of apricot juice in the family’s apartment. “I worry about him -- there is a danger. But he is getting rid of the people who created that danger.”

Iraq has a judicial system more similar to France’s than to that of the U.S. Trial judges rely on evidence gathered and processed by investigative judges, and make their decisions based on the case file rather than arguments between opposing lawyers. Three trial judges and seven investigative judges are based at the Rusafa complex, with 26 more investigative judges in training with FBI advisors.

Since their first hearing in April, the Rusafa judges have handled 2,001 criminal cases, mostly involving terrorism charges. Last month, the Iraqi government gave the complex an operating budget of $110 million for 2008.

The government also pays to send three-judge teams on temporary assignments to courts in Baghdad, Mosul, Ramadi and other cities where local judges have been intimidated into refusing to hear cases or downgrading criminal charges, Martins said.

But some traveling judges complain that their temporary assignments leave them vulnerable and without formal courtrooms, which confuses prisoners.

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Judge Najim Abid worries every day as he drives to and from his temporary assignment in the Iraqi National Police detention center in the northwest Baghdad neighborhood of Kadhimiya.

Before driving home from work, he changes out of his suit and tie to avoid being spotted. And he chafes at having to hear cases at a metal desk in a whitewashed office steps away from the massive detention center.

“When the detainees pass by they don’t even know who we are. They think we’re police,” he said.

“They need to know they’re dealing with a judge.”

Abid handles overflow from the Kadhimiya courthouse, which sees four times as many cases as Rusafa and is being replaced with an $11-million courthouse under construction to the north. Government officials are also scouting for land to build regional complexes in Baqubah, Basra, Mosul and Ramadi.

But Iraq’s top jurist said it would be too difficult to build and secure such regional court complexes. Instead, he said, the government should improve security for individual judges.

Midhat Mahmoud, head of the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council, which oversees about 1,000 judges across Iraq, said he and other judges received a stipend for bodyguards, but that most of the jurists had been unable to renew the guards’ gun permits since a security crackdown began in February.

“It’s become easy to hunt a judge because his bodyguards are useless,” said Mahmoud, whose son was killed in May 2006 by gunmen trying to target the top jurist. He said attacks on judges had increased in recent months.

“We have made lots of sacrifices of judges,” he said.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Times staff writer Said Rifai contributed to this report.


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