Bringing justice to Baghdad important, if not glamorous task
ARLINGTON, Va. — For many lawyers, battling morning traffic on the way to the office or courthouse might be the most frustrating aspect of their daily routines.
For Maj. Shane Cohen and Capt. Patricia Gruen jockeying with fellow commuters might seem like paradise as they set off in their up-armored Humvees for their daily nerve-wracking trip through the streets of Baghdad.
The members of the Air Force’s forward-deployed judge advocate general, or JAG, Corps rise well before 7 a.m., suit up in full battle rattle in the Iraq summer heat and charge their personal weapons before leaving the Green Zone.
And when they get to Baghdad’s Central Criminal Court, surrounded by blast walls and barbed wire, the officers will spend the day with their Iraqi counterparts, working by flashlight and the light of gas-fired Coleman lanterns, without air conditioning or overhead lights.
But for the “really good, tight team” of 10 attorneys, 10 paralegals and six linguists from the Air Force, Navy and Army Reserve, the obstacles are worth it, Gruen told Stars and Stripes in a video interview with Cohen from Baghdad.
The two JAGs and their counterparts act as the bridge between troops on the ground and the Iraqi lawyers and judges working to bring insurgents to justice, said Cohen, who left a job as an environmental lawyer in Dallas to volunteer for the Iraq job.
The Air Force legal team is also working as advisers to Iraq’s criminal legal system, which they are helping to get back on its feet after it disintegrated following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.
Bringing that system back to life is essential not only for Iraqis, but also to help give U.S. servicemembers a sense that justice is being served, Gruen and Cohen said.
Since Iraqi insurgents who hurt or kill Americans can’t be tried in U.S. courts, the criminal courts in Iraq must be running smoothly in order to punish “the crimes logged against multi-national forces,” including terrorists, Gruen said.
The JAGs help arrange for U.S. servicemembers to provide testimony in Iraq’s criminal court against insurgents captured on the ground. They schedule travel so the members can appear in court and, for servicemembers who have since rotated back to the United States, they arrange for live video links.
The Air Force’s legal eagles are also helping get the word out across Iraq to troops to teach them how to gather evidence of criminal wrongdoing and secure crime scenes correctly, in ways that are admissible under Iraqi law — which is different from U.S. law.
Neither JAG had statistics immediately available of the number of insurgents who have been convicted under the Iraqi court system.
For example, he said, during the third week of July he handled three cases, each with multiple defendants that resulted in the conviction of a total of 10 criminals. Two snipers were given the death penalty, he said, while one man found guilty of emplacing an improvised explosive device was given 30 years in prison.
Cohen said that of the court’s 30 to 40 trials each week, typically three-fourths are convictions. Sentences range from several years to death, for those found guilty of murder and kidnapping.