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Court Back in Session in Baghdad

U.S. trumpets the resumption of legal hearings being conducted by Iraqis.

May 09, 2003|Eric Slater and Laura King | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Court resumed here Thursday for the first time since the war began, with 13 criminal defendants facing judges in a highly orchestrated effort to demonstrate that despite the chaos in the country, Iraq's judicial system is up and running.

"Today is an important day in the return to a functioning civil society in Iraq," Clint Williamson, an American who is advising the Justice Ministry, said in front of a courthouse in eastern Baghdad.

"Those who commit murder will get sentences in accord with their crime," said High Criminal Court Judge Qusam Ayash.

Designed to assuage the fears of a public both frightened by lawlessness and angry at the United States for failing to quickly bring stability, the day's proceedings also demonstrated that Iraq's reemerging legal and law enforcement systems are still skeletal at best.

The defendants, most detained by U.S. forces and accused of murder, armed robbery or other serious crimes, were marched through swarms of journalists into one of two open courthouses.

They were guarded mostly by unarmed Iraqis, behind whom stood heavily armed U.S. troops. The event was, for the most part, organized and publicized by the Americans.

At a briefing later in the day, Army Lt. Gen. David McKiernan asked Iraqis to be patient and vigilant.

"The restoration of order and security in streets and neighborhoods will come, but it will not come overnight," he said. In a reference to Iraq's sprawling territory, McKiernan added, "Ask if you could secure California with 150,000 soldiers and the answer is no."

At the courthouse, which used to house Iraq's Supreme Court but has suddenly taken on marriage licensing, civil suits and other legal duties, each defendant spent a few minutes Thursday standing before a judge to offer his version of events during the "investigative hearings."

Not unlike preliminary hearings in U.S. criminal courts, the judges sorted through a few pages of notes, asked a few questions, then decided whether there was enough evidence to hold a defendant for trial.

"You will be held," one judge told a frightened-looking 19-year-old accused of murder, as another alleged killer pleaded his case in the same tiny room before another jurist.

Although the day was heavy with American influence, U.S. officials went out of their way to emphasize that the suspects were being judged by countrymen under a largely unchanged Iraqi judicial system.

Based on laws amended and written after Saddam Hussein's Baath Party seized power in 1968, most Iraqi criminal courts adhere to international standards, including the right to a defense attorney and the right to confront one's accuser, officials said.

"It is the basic Iraqi law which remains in effect, and the law itself is a good system of law," Williamson said.

"It was the manner in which it was applied that was the problem. Those provisions which are inconsistent with international law will be suspended ... offenses such as insulting the president."

Even under Hussein, who became president in 1979, the traditional criminal and civil courts operated mostly within internationally accepted standards, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials.

"People immediately assume that the Ministry of Justice would have been a primary tool of oppression under the former regime," Williamson said. "In fact, Saddam used a parallel system as his primary tool of oppression. Under Saddam, there were revolutionary courts, there were Baath Party courts, the intelligence service had courts, the military had courts.

"Those who were being prosecuted for political crimes or for what were termed security offenses were funneled into other systems, [not] the Justice Ministry," said Williamson, a former prosecutor for the international war crimes tribunal at The Hague who now works at the National Security Council.

As the defendants pleaded their cases, the courthouse took on additional small signs of normality. A couple got married, the mother's bride tossing candy in the hallway, and a history teacher filed papers in a civil suit over his wages.

The formation of an interim government also moved forward Thursday when two more representatives were added to a nascent leadership council, bringing the total to seven.

Joining the panel are Nasir Kamal Chachachi, a Sunni Muslim leader, and the Al Dawa Party, which represents Shiite Muslims.

The addition of Al Dawa is particularly significant. Shiites make up about 60% of Iraq's population, and the United States has been criticized for largely excluding the group from leadership discussions. Three of the five members named to the council this week are Shiites, but only one is considered by the Iraqi Shiite population to be a religious leader.

U.S. officials also said Thursday that half a million civil servants had been paid an emergency stipend to return to work, half of Baghdad's electricity needs were being met, and 10,000 Iraqi police officers were back on the streets -- though few were seen in the capital.

In a city beset by looting and other turmoil, some residents saw a glimmer of hope in the courts' reopening.

"A baby's step," said Ahmed Ali, a math student awaiting the reopening of Baghdad University.

"Babies' steps get bigger."


Times staff writer Alissa J. Rubin contributed to this report.

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