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Snarled justice system frustrates Iraqi judges
By Jim Michaels | USA TODAYBAGHDAD, Iraq - While this city's criminal courts sit nearly idle, thousands of looters and other suspects detained by coalition forces languish in prisons because of delays in translating cases into Arabic and transporting prisoners to trials.
And when cases do come before the newly established criminal courts in Baghdad, there's often too little evidence to win convictions, Iraqi judges say.
The judges worry that people who have committed petty crimes are being held unjustly for months and that others who may be guilty of armed robbery or other serious crimes will be let go because of a lack of evidence. And as criminals increasingly feel that they'll never be punished for crimes they commit, the situation is getting worse, some judges say. It is ``encouraging crime,'' says Qassem Al Ayash, a Baghdad criminal judge.
There are 5,000 to 6,000 criminal suspects in coalition hands. Most are in or near Baghdad. Most were detained by American soldiers as the troops tried to quell violence and restore order in the chaotic weeks after the fall of Baghdad on April 9. Waves of looters ran through the streets, breaking into stores, ransacking police stations and opening prisons. Carjackings and kidnappings were rampant.
Now local judges are being asked to make sense of the hasty arrests. Al Ayash says military police recently brought him a suspect who had been detained for two months on charges he stole state property. The judge says it turned out the man had taken some nuts and bolts. ``They were worthless,'' Al Ayash says. ``I told (the Americans), `Thank you. Where are the bank robbers?' ``
In another case, an old woman was accused of illegal possession of a Kalashnikov assault rifle. Al Ayash says he determined the weapon was placed under her bed by a hostile son-in-law, who then turned her in to coalition forces.
Judge Issam Wafiq Al Jader, whose jurisdiction encompasses the western half of Baghdad, said last week his court had tried only eight cases since it opened May 11. Four of the suspects were dismissed for lack of evidence.
Al Jader and other judges say the only information they have about some cases comes from the simple forms that MPs and soldiers filled out when making the detentions. Most of that information - religion, age and other personal data - ``is completely useless to the judge,'' Al Jader says.
Among the cases he's reviewed, Al Jader says, are murder charges that make no reference to whether a body has been recovered. ``The investigative judge needs some material evidence and eyewitness reports,'' he says.
The cases are also slow in coming. Al Ayash points to a list of more than a thousand names posted neatly on a wall outside his chambers. Most of the people were arrested by coalition forces and are awaiting trial. But the judge's newly furnished courtroom was empty one day last week, and he goes days without hearing a single case.
The delays are caused by the difficulty in finding enough buses and MPs to escort the prisoners to court and enough linguists to translate the cases into Arabic, coalition officials say. Coalition officials say they have made progress in building an independent court system practically from scratch and have plans that will help break the court logjam, including building holding cells in Baghdad police stations and establishing more courts. ``We are making headway every day,'' says Donald Campbell, a New Jersey superior court judge who serves as the coalition's top judicial adviser.
In addition, the bulk of the arrests are now made by Iraqi police who are familiar with the court system and understand how to prepare cases. In the weeks immediately after the fall of Baghdad, Iraqi police had left their jobs.
Several thousand police are back at work, and more are on the way. The New York Times reported Monday that 28,000 Iraqi officers will go to Hungary for training.
Before the collapse of Saddam Hussein's government, Iraq's legal system was corrupted and manipulated by more than two decades of dictatorship. Then, practically overnight, the country's police and prison system was destroyed by looting. The coalition estimates it will cost $700 million to re-establish the entire judicial system and build and staff enough prisons to hold at least 30,000 people in this nation of 25 million.
The criminal courts are one piece of the coalition's strategy to create an impartial judicial system in Iraq. Most of the legal abuses during Saddam's era were in special military and intelligence tribunals, where punishment for military desertion and other crimes included removing a defendant's tongue or ear. These courts have been eliminated.
The system was also corrupted by occasional decrees issued by Saddam, who created laws to serve his political interests.
But the underlying legal system is workable, and civil and criminal courts outside of the military and intelligence agencies remained largely independent, coalition officials say. The Justice Ministry, which oversaw the criminal courts, had fewer top level members of the ruling Baath Party than other ministries.
Iraq's legal system is based on the French model, which uses an investigative judge to examine cases and then pass recommendations on to another judge who decides on guilt or innocence and punishment. There are no juries. Many lawyers are back at work, and coalition officials aim to soon expand the number of public defenders available.
Iraqi judges are eager to turn law enforcement over to Iraqi police who understand the criminal system and know the local criminals and their habits. ``We are tired of this,'' Al Jader says.