By Tim Kilbride
Special to American Forces Press Service
April 4, 2007 – The government of Iraq took a step toward national reconciliation April 2 when it opened criminal cases against a Sunni and a Shiite man accused of "crimes against the Iraqi people," a coalition legal official said. Army Col. Mark Martins, a staff judge advocate for Multinational Force Iraq and legal advisor to Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, MNF-I commander, told online journalists yesterday that the Iraqi government demonstrated its ability to put aside revenge politics by taking definitive action against an alleged Sunni al Qaeda operative and a Shiite national policeman accused of torturing detainees in his custody.
"This really represents, we believe, a small step forward for the Iraqi government on two fronts," Martin said. "One is the political will to embrace the rule of law, and the second is the capacity to render justice through secure and legitimate proceedings."
Legal action was facilitated by the construction of a joint judicial and law enforcement compound in Baghdad's Rusafah neighborhood, Martin said. The "Rule of Law" facility, as the Iraqis call it, "allows police, courts and prisons -- the three big pieces of the criminal justice system -- to work together securely," he explained.
While Iraq's legal system clearly needs additional capacity, Martin said, this week's events at the facility served as "proof of principle." High-level Iraqi government officials from a range of sects and political parties watched the proceedings, reinforcing the notion of a united commitment to the rule of law.
"The cases that occurred (April 2) involve allegations of barbaric acts, and one of them was in the name of terrorist and religious extremism, and the other was sectarian reprisal by a national police officer under color of law," the colonel said.
These proceedings "show that the politics of revenge and fanaticism can be replaced," he noted. "It's not who you are, but what you did. Not what religious sect, or what region or what tribe, but what you did to other Iraqis."
Martin explained that while construction of the new facility has been going on for about two months, it owes its progress to the Baghdad security plan that shaped the necessary political climate to move ahead with trials.
As Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and others in the government have demonstrated their willingness to move against destabilizing elements from any sect, Martin said, Iraqis now feel empowered to "step forward and condemn one of their own who's disgraced his uniform, as well as a fanatic who wants to hijack the country regardless of the cost to innocents."
In fact, the colonel noted, additional major crimes committed under Iraq's current state of emergency are set be tried by the high-level Central Criminal Court of Iraq. The prominence of such proceedings, he said, would be proof the Iraqi government is willing to take on major criminals who seek to undermine the state.
The capacity should be in place for the court to process six to 10 cases per week by late May or early June, Martin said.
"These and similar cases, if they are tried in the coming weeks by the Iraqis, can open a window to reconciliation and to lasting security," Martin noted.
By pursuing criminals in an unbiased way, he said, "it ensures that all institutions are accountable, including the state, including people who may be in official positions."
The question of accountability and due diligence has been a problem, Martin admitted, especially among the Iraqi police. In a system where historically a confession "is a very strong mode of demonstrating guilt," he said concerted efforts are being made to instill transparency into the criminal justice system by instructing police investigators in forensic evidence collection.
"One of the functions of this 'Rule of Law' corridor or complex is to bring the police closer to the judiciary," Martin explained, so they can see the proper role of evidence and a defense counsel in criminal proceedings.
To help facilitate this growth, Martin said, coalition personnel are engaged with the Iraqi government and security forces at many levels. Multinational Security Transition Command trainers teach investigative skills as part of their police curriculum, he said, while U.S. Embassy officials act in an advisory capacity with the government, and U.S. Department of Justice liaisons work with the head of Iraq's higher juridical council.
The result of these efforts, Martin said, and what was displayed in part on April 2, is a realization among the Iraqis that "for lasting reconciliation to be achieved, the government, and eventually the people, must reject revenge for whatever reason and accept the rule of law.
"I don't want to overstate what happened," he stressed, "It doesn't exist fully in Iraq yet, certainly."
However, the colonel noted, "You've got to give them their due. It's a step forward. The government made a step toward reconciliation."
(Tim Kilbride is assigned to New Media, American Forces Information Service.)
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