Trying insurgents in Iraqi courts seen as big step in rebuilding legal system

The court is seen from the point of view of the defendants' dock in the main courtroom.


By JOSEPH GIORDONO | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 26, 2004

BAGHDAD — In late September, Staff Sgt. Ronald Lewis, Sgt. Shaun Thomas and other soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment raided a compound south of Fallujah. Inside, they found a cache of illegal weapons, ammunition, piles of cash and stacks of propaganda.

On Dec. 19 in a Baghdad courtroom, before an Iraqi judge, Lewis and Thomas testified in the preliminary hearing of the suspect they detained that day.

U.S. military officials say prosecuting insurgents and other criminals in the Central Criminal Court of Iraq is a major step in rebuilding the Iraqi legal system. It is an increasingly effective tool to show soldiers that many of the insurgents they detain will be off the streets and be stopped from organizing future attacks.

“Establishing the rule of law is the cornerstone of a free and democratic society,” said Lt. Col. Bernard McLaughlin, the Multi-National Force Iraq deputy liaison to the court.

“I think I lucked out,” said McLaughlin, a reservist and attorney from Louisiana. “I got one of the best jobs in Iraq.”

Luck wasn’t the only factor. Iraq’s legal code was written by the French. Louisiana, with its French roots, has the legal system most similar to the Iraqi Penal Code of 1969, which was largely abandoned under Saddam Hussein.

In recent weeks, U.S. military officials at the central court have been teaching front-line troops how to work within the system. They give presentations on how to collect and preserve evidence; they also help soldiers from the front lines get to Baghdad to testify in court.

“If the tactical scene allows you to do it, tell everyone to take pictures. If you pop a guy in a house, take pictures of the detainee in the house with the weapons,” McLaughlin told visiting soldiers from the judge advocate general and military intelligence units of the 256th Brigade Combat Team.

“Collect the brass from enemy shots. Write down if the barrel of a seized weapon is hot, which shows it’s been fired.”

So far, the central Court has heard 900 cases. U.S. military officials have brought 200 of those cases, McLaughlin said. Two weeks ago, McLaughlin and his staff — made up of 27 servicemembers from all branches — won what they call a landmark case.

For the first time, an Iraqi man was convicted of murdering a U.S. servicemember. Alaa Sartell Khthee, 28, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for shooting to death Lt. Kylan Jones-Huffman in an August 2003 Baghdad marketplace ambush. A second murder case, which was to begin last week, involves the killing of an Iraqi translator working with the U.S. military. The slain man’s daughter will be the star witness at trial.

The goal of the central court, McLaughlin said, is to have four trials and four investigative hearings each day.

Sentences range from six months to 30 years, with the average time served being two to three years in one of Iraq’s 27 prisons, officials said. The average turnaround time from arrest to trial is three to four months, but officials are telling line units they will fast-track important cases that can set a countrywide example.

“If you have a really important case, it can be sling-shot to the front of the docket,” McLaughlin said. If soldiers capture someone building improvised explosive devices, for example, that case will be taken early.

Court is held six days a week at Saddam’s former museum of antiquities in downtown Baghdad. To get there, McLaughlin and the other military lawyers must leave the relative safety of the International Zone. For security, they alter their routes and the timing everyday and ride with a special Air Force protective detail.

Like all servicemembers, the attorneys are required to wear full combat gear and carry their weapons. It’s the one time in his life, McLaughlin jokes, that he can carry a gun to a courthouse, though weapons aren’t allowed in the courtrooms or judges’ chambers.

The court and trials are open to the public, a critical part of making the proceedings transparent — and therefore legitimate — to the Iraqi public, officials said.

“We are now ready to take the next step,” McLaughlin said, indicating indictments are coming for religious leaders who call for violent actions against coalition troops or Iraqi civilians working for the occupation.

“We do 98 percent of the work. We package the cases, then they’re presented by an Iraqi prosecutor at trial,” McLaughlin said.

But it’s precisely that American influence some critics of the system point out.

Naghim Mohammed Rashid is one of several Iraqi lawyers assigned to represent defendants in investigative hearings and trials. The 27-year-old was schooled in Baghdad and practiced law under the old Saddam regime.

In five months of working in the new central court, Rashid has been assigned 20 clients. Some of the problems of the old legal system remain, she said.

“The only people given full access to the defendants are the coalition lawyers,” she said through an interpreter. “I don’t feel a change has yet taken place. These are the same laws argued under the same judges.”

On Dec. 19, Rashid represented the man detained by Lewis and Thomas of the 2nd ID. Clad in a set of traditional long robes, a black coat and a pink head covering, Rashid took notes as the soldiers testified about what they’d found.

After the soldiers, her client gave his side of the story. The defendant, an older man wearing a yellow prison jumpsuit and a slightly-askew black watch cap over clipped gray hair, denied the weapons were his. When his statement was complete, the defendant’s thumbprint was pressed onto the page and the hearing was complete. A decision on whether he’ll stand trial will be rendered later.

“I have difficulty getting to meet my clients when I want,” Rashid said after the hearing. “Lawyers are restricted in how far they can go on a case. The courts need to have more open access to be a true success.”

Even though she is a defense attorney defending accused insurgents, Rashid has been followed home and threatened by people telling her not to work in the court system. In fact, U.S. officials said, several judges have survived assassination attempts — including one top judge who has been targeted four times.

Of the 20 preliminary cases Rashid has been assigned in the past five months, she said, 15 have been sent on to trial, where U.S. officials claim a conviction rate exceeding 90 percent.

While he understands Rashid’s criticisms, McLaughlin points to the fact that she has essentially won one-quarter of her cases.

“The Iraqis are taking ownership of the system. They’re bringing their own cases,” he said. “We want to show that justice is relatively swift here, and it is. The Iraqis want to know this is working.”

Military attorneys walk into the court before an investigative hearing on Dec. 19.