By Army Spc. Josh LeCappelain
Special to American Forces Press Service
Feb. 2, 2009 - As the Iraqi security forces continue to improve their ability to protect Iraq's people, a strong judicial branch that can help bring criminals to justice becomes increasingly important. "I think the [Iraqi legal system] is improving," Army Capt. Ronald Alcala, Multinational Division Center's rule of law chief, said. Coalition forces have had a huge impact by helping to professionalize the Iraqi forces and providing training on crime-scene management and investigative procedures, he added.
The Iraqi legal system places more of an emphasis on testimonial evidence, usually from two or more witnesses, and less on forensic evidence, Alcala said.
"We're trying to introduce scientific evidence into courtrooms," he said. "Iraqi prosecutions have traditionally relied on eyewitness statements over physical evidence. It was a testimony-based system. Slowly, though, judges are becoming more receptive to the use of forensic evidence, such as blood evidence and DNA, in court."
Forensics is only one area where Iraq's law system differs from that in the United States. Iraq's legal system is based on the civil law system, which emphasizes legal texts and reliance on a code of laws, whereas the U.S. legal system is a common-law system, which emphasizes case law and precedent, Alcala explained.
Iraq's legal setup has worked since the downfall of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein to improve the supremacy of law, equality before law, predictability of law and judicial independence -- four areas that were lacking prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Continuing forward, the detention system is a problem for Iraq's criminal justice system, as facilities around the Multinational Division Center area are overcrowded. Additional prisons are in the works, but "you can't build a prison overnight," Alcala said.
While new prisons and courthouses continue to go up around Iraq, Alcala said, he sees a sense of honor permeating the Iraqi population.
"We have talked to many Iraqis," he said. "Many of them believe their legal system is functioning well -- a very good sign heading forward. Iraqis generally believe their judicial system is a fair and just system, but there is still a lot of work to be done."
Another area of pride for the Iraqi legal system is the work of judges, Alcala noted.
"The judges have a lot of pride in their work," he said. "They have been very courageous, dealing with threats and judicial intimidation, but refusing to be deterred. They go to their offices every day to do their job. They've definitely done their part to stand up to the forces working to tear down what the Iraqi people and the coalition have worked so hard to build."
The status-of-forces agreement between the United States and Iraq that took effect Jan. 1 has changed the ability of coalition forces to detain and arrest criminals.
"We have to do everything [involving criminal detention] with the Iraqis now," Alcala explained. "We need to work by, with, and through the Iraqis, and with respect for Iraqi law."
Prisoners held longer than 24 hours now need to be brought before a judge, and searches of Iraqi buildings and homes need to have warrants, subject to a few exceptions, he said.
Future changes to the Iraqi legal system are likely, Alcala said, but all advancements and tweaks have one goal in mind: a safer, stable Iraq for future generations to enjoy.
(Army Spc. Josh LeCappelain serves in Multinational Division Center.)