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Reforming Legal Education in Iraq

Sermid Al-Sarraf, the son of immigrants, works to modernize the penal code in his ancestral land.

August 23, 2004|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

The headlines from Baghdad may be filled with violence and mayhem, but Sermid Al-Sarraf sees a different Iraq beginning to bloom: a land where Americans and Iraqis are working together to restore independent courts, reform the penal code, and train judges and lawyers in human rights and international law.

Al-Sarraf, a Southern Californian and son of Iraqi immigrants, currently on leave from his job as an attorney for the city of Los Angeles, is part of an ambitious venture that pairs U.S. and Iraqi universities to reform and modernize legal education.

Working with DePaul University College of Law's International Human Rights Law Institute in Chicago, Al-Sarraf and his partners say their work represents a glimmer of hopeful change that has largely been shrouded by the relentless spate of bad news from Iraq.

"No matter what people think about how we got into the war, we have a legal and moral obligation to leave a society that is secure and stable," he said in a recent interview during a brief return home from Iraq this month.

"It's a long journey for Iraq to build civic institutions that can protect people, but we've made significant inroads," he said.

One success came when the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority agreed to reverse a policy instituted by Saddam Hussein and separate the courts from the executive branch. The move, which was decreed last year and began to take effect this year, restored judicial independence in Iraq for the first time in more than two decades.

U.S. officials at first had been concerned that changing Iraq's government structure unilaterally would violate the Geneva Convention, Al-Sarraf said. He successfully argued that it was Hussein who had violated international law by eliminating the independent judiciary in the first place.

When his argument prevailed, Al-Sarraf said, he sent off an exuberant e-mail to his four children back home in Sunland. "This is an example of how one voice can make a difference," he wrote.

That upbeat message is echoed by Majid Alanbaki, an Iraqi University law professor who works with Al-Sarraf.

"The progress has been excellent," Alanbaki said in a telephone interview from Baghdad.

"Because of the embargo on Iraq during the last 10 years, we lost contact with the outside world and became backward. This has been a golden opportunity to catch up with everything we've missed."

Still, pitching democracy, legal reform and human rights in Iraq is not always an easy sell. Some Iraqis have pointedly questioned whether Americans practice what they preach.

David E. Guinn, executive director of DePaul's law institute, refers to the recent scandal over mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners and asks: "How do you teach human rights with Abu Ghraib?"

"It's a challenge, because this administration has been so cynical about international law," Guinn said.

In addition, some Iraqis are leery that the largely secular legal reforms pushed by Al-Sarraf and his colleagues will squeeze out reliance on Koranic law, according to Alanbaki. Other Muslims, who largely opposed the war, are ambivalent about their Islamic brethren who assist U.S. efforts in Iraq.

"I support Sermid and agree that it's better to do something positive than be frustrated," said Sarah Eltantawi, a Muslim activist in Southern California. "But I think he'll be criticized by the community for not talking about the horrors enough.... I don't see [his actions] as conspiring with the occupiers, but of course that sentiment exists."

Despite such concerns, Al-Sarraf, 40, sees the chance to aid the liberation of his ancestral land as the fulfillment of a lifelong quest.

In the 1980s, he started a newsletter to publicize Hussein's atrocities. In the 1990s, after attending UCLA and UC Berkeley, he went to Whittier Law School to equip himself with skills to advocate the overthrow of the regime in Iraq.

Now, with fluent Arabic and family connections -- his uncle is Iraq's equivalent of the chief justice of the Supreme Court -- Al-Sarraf aims to meld Islamic values and U.S. democratic traditions to help lay the legal foundation for a new Iraq.

A soft-spoken man with a closely shaved beard, Al-Sarraf says his passion is shaped by his family's history. His father, a physician, left Iraq to study at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1962 and stayed in the West to escape the national tumult after the Baath Party took control of Iraq a year later. A cousin was executed by the Hussein regime for alleged affiliations with a banned opposition group; other relatives were killed in war. His uncles were professionally sidelined for refusing to join the Baath Party, he said.

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