Global Policy Forum

Judicial System Far from Independent

Integrated Regional Information Networks
October 10, 2006

Like other public sectors in Iraq, the judicial system decayed during the three and a half decades of former President Saddam Hussein's 24-year rule, in which his government controlled it and directed judges to serve its interests. This year though, Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised to make Iraq's judicial system more independent, partly by making it the sole authority responsible for punishing crime, and partly by increasing its powers.

However, legal specialists say much still has to be done to make the judiciary truly independent. "The government has to protect the judicial system from any pressure from influential political parties or any social influences to achieve independence for this important sector," said Dr Ahmed Jabre Attwan, a legal expert at the College of Law, Baghdad University. Attwan said Iraq's government must choose independent judges carefully, and adopt tough measures against anyone who tries to influence this system for personal or political gain.

"Over the past three decades, there was just one party controlling the country's judicial system, but now the whole system is in the hands of many political parties, especially those who have militias," said a 65-year-old Iraqi judge who spoke on condition of anonymity due to his fear of reprisals.

Most judges refuse to speak with reporters, even anonymously. At least 11 judges have been killed in 2006. "We can't do our job properly with all these pressures." the judge said. "They [militias] are controlling everything everywhere, and they do whatever they want. They don't even hesitate to put pressure on us openly."

Iraq's government also needs to fight corruption in the judiciary and get rid of those judges who were affiliated with Saddam's ousted Baath party, he said. Thirty-seven judges and prosecutors who had been high-ranking Baath party members, have been dismissed since 2003, said Ali al-Lami, director general of the De-Baathification Commission, the body that led a purge of members of the disbanded Baath party from the military and government. "But there is still a lag in the work of the justice ministry and judicial supreme council in this regard. They say that they still need some [who are Baathists] for their qualifications, and that there are no alternatives for the time being," al-Lami said.

The New York-based watchdog, Human Rights Watch, has criticised the Iraq government's handling of former president Saddam Hussein's court case, by saying Iraq's High Tribunal cannot fairly and effectively try Hussein and others "in accordance with international standards." The rights body condemned the manner in which the Iraqi government on 19 September was able to remove Judge Abdullah al-Amiri who was perceived to have been impartial by government officials. "Judges must not be the subject of inflammatory criticism by government officials. Any process for disciplining or removing judges must occur in accordance with independent judicial procedures, and not take place in the court of public opinion," HRW stated.

Finding impartial judges, respected by all sides of Iraq's political and sectarian divide, is no easy matter, say legal specialists. "We do believe that those [judges] who have any political links to any party or even sympathy to any ethnic or political or religious group, should step down," Mowafaq al-Atraqchi, a Baghdad-based lawyer, said. "Only in this way can we get a judicial system which looks at cases with two eyes, not one."

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