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Ancient custom of demanding blood money now abused in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—It was a warm fall evening when a gang of armed bandits chose to rob the home of Baghdad University pharmacology professor Saad al Qaisi, 45, killing him and his family's domestic servant, who was caught in a crossfire.

What happened next deepened the ordeal for the professor's family.

The maid's relatives sent a mediator to their home demanding fasil, or blood money. The professor left behind a wife and six young children, and when his family balked at paying, the servant's family threatened to kill one of them.

The payment of blood money is an ancient tribal custom intended to settle disputes and end feuds, especially in rural areas. But in the absence of law and order, the abuse of fasil has increased greatly, due to the powerful influence of tribes.

Doctors are afraid to operate out of concern that their patients will die and their kin will come after them. Families of carjackers and thieves killed while committing crimes are demanding fasil from the victims. Tribal sheiks have agreed publicly not to seek compensation on behalf of criminals, but they've continued to do it because so many people are without jobs and need money.

"It's terrible now. Every accident or incident, they use it to blackmail people," said Salman Dawood, 45, owner of the al Malek General Trading market in Baghdad's Mansur neighborhood. "The problem is there is no strong government or order or security enforcement. Anyone belonging to a strong tribe can do whatever they want."

Dawood said that two months ago thieves robbed the owner of the shop across the street and the owner fired on them, killing one person. The dead man's tribe demanded 12 million Iraqi dinars, or $7,270, and threatened the owner at gunpoint until he paid.

Fasil is older than Islam, but it is mentioned in the Quran, where it is referred to as diya:

"It is not for a believer to take a believer's life except by mistake; and he who kills a believer by mistake should free a slave who is a believer, and pay blood money to the victim's family unless they forego it as an act of charity."

Diya is an obligatory, non-negotiable payment of blood money used in cases of accidental killings. Fasil is an Iraqi term for a negotiated amount of money that is paid even after intentional killings. It also is used to compensate after an insult, a humiliation, a break-in or a car accident.

Fasil doesn't have to be financial. It can be an agreement never to be seen in a certain neighborhood again. In normal times, it's a useful substitute for an inefficient or corrupt legal system.

But in times of weak government it can be abused easily, said Jalal Abbass, 45, a former criminal court judge who's now practicing law. "Now, there is no government that can protect someone who is being asked for fasil," he said.

Lt. Gen. Ahmed Kadhim Ibrahim, senior undersecretary of the Ministry of Interior and the person responsible for the Iraqi police, said he's confident that problems with fasil can be solved by talking to tribal leaders about not abusing fasil and by asking them not to seek it in cases where the victim is a suspected criminal.

However, such agreements already exist and are ignored. And Ibrahim needs the support of the tribal sheiks in the fight against terrorism.

Criminal courts are investigating cases, and coalition forces are training Iraqi police officers in human rights. But many tribes believe they are above the law, and even law-abiding sheiks bristle at the suggestion that they would take orders from the state.

"Tribes have their own norms away from the government," said Sheik Mohammed Lazim al Timimi, head of the council of sheiks in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of al Shaab. "The state cannot intervene nor can the Ministry of the Interior. Most of Iraq is rich in tribes, and we have had this custom for a long time."

When sheiks sit down for fasil, the sheik of the victim's tribe or the tribe that expects to receive money makes his case. The sheik of the tribe that is expected to pay remains silent. Behind him are his supporters. Around both parties are neutral third-party sheiks who offer their opinions.

There is also a judge, a sayeed who can trace his ancestry to the Prophet Mohammed, who will have the final say.

The abuse of fasil was banned after the 1968 revolution and disappeared in the ྂs and ྌs. In recent years it was shunned or at least not widely used in Baghdad, except in some poor neighborhoods.

In October 2002 Saddam Hussein issued a prisoner amnesty, which said that jailed murderers first needed to settle with their victims' families through fasil. That declaration cemented the practice.

Now, in hospitals across Baghdad, doctors are talking of leaving the country, switching to specialties with less invasive procedures or turning away high-risk patients.

"This is destroying my life," said Ahmed Abdul Razak, 35, a plastic surgeon who has not yet been forced to pay fasil but who lives in fear of it. He earns $150 a month and said he cannot afford a typical $10,000 demand for fasil. He is down to three operations a week, from 12, in part because of oxygen and electricity shortages, but also because of the threat of fasil.

Fasil is constantly in the back of his colleagues' minds, too.

"I've decided to stop all my surgeries," said Mohammed al Dahri, 33, a urologist who is paid $150 a month but who also teaches and considers his salary insufficient. "You cannot do surgeries for free and then have to pay millions of dinars for nothing."

In the case of al Qaisi, the pharmacology professor, both sides sat down and the maid's family asked for 25 million Iraqi dinars ($15,000). After negotiation, they settled for 2.5 million dinars ($1,500). Men on both sides indicated their satisfaction by kissing each other and tying up a banner of cloth to signify that they would not violate their agreement.

The final agreement was not just, because it was not the family of the professor who killed the maid, said Sheik Mohammed Lazim al Timimi, who argued on behalf of the professor's tribe. "Even the professor himself was killed. It happened by chance. It was not a revenge killing. It was just a robbery."


(Fan reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.