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Iraqi courts a growing success story amid chaos of reconstruction

BAGHDAD, Iraq—At Baghdad's Rasafa courthouse, the power usually goes out about noon, turning summertime trials into endurance tests. Armed guards shadow judges and prosecutors. A defendant's right to a lawyer is only just now taking hold.

But none of that stops the wheels of justice from turning.

Fifteen months after looters stripped bare most of the country's courthouses, all 712 courts are functioning, according to Iraq's chief judge. And they are working under a set of U.S.-backed reforms that can be seen as a reconstruction success story.

In a country on the verge of chaos, the courts have become a testing ground for Iraqis trying to rebuild institutions of civilization amid the daily barbarism that grips their society.

"I am very satisfied with the progress, under these hard circumstances," said Midhat al Mahmood, the chief justice of Iraq's highest court, the Court of Cassation. "I consider these judges to be heroes."

In addition to renovating the buildings, the American-led occupation authority, working closely with respected Iraqi jurists, re-established the independence of the judiciary, tried to weed out corrupt or tainted judges and fine-tuned the criminal law to include basic civil rights guarantees.

A day watching trials at Rasafa showed that the courts have come a long way since the early months after the war, when just getting defendants to the courthouse was a struggle.

Criminal Court Judge Zuhair Abdil Sahib plowed through his calendar of cases, presiding over a three-judge panel that acquitted three carjacking defendants, sentenced another to life in prison, convicted one man of manslaughter and suspended a murder trial after it got too hot—literally—to continue.

Like every sector of Iraqi society, though, the justice system is impaired by sparse electricity, a scarcity of resources and a lack of security. Iraq also has a culture that often prefers to solve disputes outside the law.

Judges have been assassinated, so guards prowl the courthouses. Case management is weak, with computers scarce and paper files disorganized. Defendants still sometimes aren't brought to court on time, and witnesses often don't show up. The idea that the accused always need legal representation seems not to be universally accepted.

Perhaps the biggest shortcoming is that the criminal justice system is dealing with only a fraction of Iraq's crime. Rasafa contains the only criminal court for an area of Baghdad home to 2 million people. The majority of crimes committed in the district never make it to trial, either because they're unreported or because police can't solve them.

Still, Iraqi judges are proud of how far they have come.

Saddam Hussein and his minions occasionally sought to fix cases in the criminal courts, but usually they bypassed them by using special courts to imprison or execute political opponents. Just the same, judges weren't independent—they fell under the executive branch through the Ministry of Justice. The former U.S.-led occupation authority changed that by adopting laws that created a separate judicial branch with its own budget.

Iraq's criminal law, based on the Napoleonic Code, provides an ample framework, American experts concluded. Cases are reviewed first by an investigating judge, then bound over for trial before a panel of judges. There are no juries. Prosecutors and defense lawyers argue legal points, but the lead judge questions the witnesses.

The world witnessed such judicial questioning during Saddam's court appearance last month, although that trial is being conducted by a special court separate from the rest of the criminal justice system.

Judge Sahib, a tank commander during the Iran-Iraq war, was a prosecutor under the former regime, but he said Saddam's Baath Party henchmen never tried to pressure him.

"They feared me," he said. And people still do, court employees add, especially after he sentenced a police officer to prison recently for torturing a suspect.

Sahib presides over criminal trials five days a week. The Rasafa courthouse also contains a civil court that handles business disputes—cases are secret, but the chief judge said a recent verdict amounted to $1.4 million—and an appeals court.

On one recent day, the criminal defendants arrived on time and were marched, chained together in orange prison jumpsuits, to the courthouse holding cell. The lobby was packed with lawyers, relatives and policemen, a swirl that would have looked familiar to courthouse regulars in almost any urban setting.

Sahib called his first case, the trial of three men, including a police officer, who'd been accused of being involved in a carjacking. The three had been in jail since December; the proceeding had begun and been continued several times.

"We charge you under Article 442 of the criminal code. Are you guilty or innocent?" Sahib asked.

"We are innocent," each man replied.

The complaining witnesses testified on a previous day, so what remained was closing arguments. Four people had accused the men of stealing a car at gunpoint, but neither the guns nor the car was found.

The defense lawyer argued that the witnesses made up the story. The prosecutor could only deny that—there wasn't much else to the case.

The judges cleared the room, and after about 20 minutes, they called the defendants back for the verdict.

"The evidence is contradictory," Sahib said. "We will release you."

The men began pumping their right hands in salute.

"God bless you!" they shouted. "Long live justice!"

Faris Taqi wasn't so lucky. One of many defendants cycling through the justice system again after having been released when Saddam emptied the prisons before the war, he had confessed to killing a man after a gunfight in which he was injured. He claimed self-defense.

In a U.S. court, he might have gotten off. No one who actually saw the gunfight testified. The witnesses were family members who could only say what they heard and one man who said the victim whispered, "Faris killed me," before dying.

"I am guilty, but I didn't intend to kill him," Taqi said, when asked his plea. The victim shot first, he said.

After deliberating, the panel cleared Taqi of premeditation and sentenced him to 20 years in prison.

An hour later, Sahib stopped for the day in the middle of another murder case. It was too hot to continue. As the lawyers filed out, the judge shuffled his files with a look of grim satisfaction on his face.

In this room on this day at least, the rule of law prevailed.

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

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+courts

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