Karbala judicial system feels growing pains

19 Jun 2003 | Army Spc. Benjamin R. Kibbey

In southern Iraq, the court system is meeting the changes and challenges of operating in a democratic environment, even if that sometimes means making some mistakes.

A group of Marines and soldiers went to the Karbala courthouse June 19 so that Army Staff Sgt. John D. Craemer, a reservist with the 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion of Green Bay, Wis., could testify against 27 men apprehended June 19 by a coalition patrol he led.  The men were accused of stealing diesel fuel from a pipeline west of the city.

Craemer is part of the civil affairs team that oversees all fuel issues in Karbala, and serves as the noncommissioned officer in charge of the civil military operations center for 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines.

What would be a typical case of grand theft in the United States was more of a trial test for an Iraqi judicial system still finding its way following the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Prior to leaving for the scheduled arraignment, Craemer met with Maj. Bernard J. Bercik, a reservist with the 304th Civil Affairs Brigade of Philadelphia. The two met to go over the scheduled proceedings and Craemer's witness statement, as well as to have his written statement translated into Arabic.

"Before the trial, just like any lawyer or interested party, we go back over the story," said Bercik, a resident of Philadelphia.

Bercik, is a member of the Judge Advocate General team for the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines. He said that the crime, which was against the Iraqi people, should be heard in the country's court of law.

"We're using Iraqi law and Iraqi judges," Bercik said.  "These are people detained by coalition forces for attempting to steal diesel belonging to the Iraqi people, and for weapons possession."

The 27 men who had been arrested were well armed and running a fairly large operation.

"We ended up seizing seven AK-47s, four grenades, 11 tankers and other vehicles, and 27 personnel," Craemer said.

With the evidence, and Craemer's statement, Bercik was allowed to bring the case before the court as an interested party.

"These judges are independent, and I have to present my evidence," he said. "If I don't have enough evidence, I have to request a postponement and get more evidence," Bercik said.

He would learn in this case he needed more than evidence. He needed suspects.

As proceedings were about to begin, Craemer learned that the 27 people detained were nowhere to be found.

"After looking in the jail, we determined that they weren't there, and probably released," said Craemer.

Bercik had the news Craemer feared most, but it was not unexpected by this point.

"We went to the chief judge, and found out the prisoners were released," Bercik told Craemer and those with him.  "We're going to talk to the chief of police, and the chief judge and do an investigation into why, and under whose authority these men were released," Bercik said.

"This is an accountability issue under Iraqi law of the court system and judges," he added.

Bercik met with the chief judge in Karbala, Judge Raad Al Imami, and the two attempted to discover what had happened.

It was determined that another judge had released the suspects on bail, something Bercik had requested not happen because 17 of the men were from another town and considered flight risks, and all were facing serious weapons charges, he said.

Imami said he was unaware of the releases.  The judges under him in Karbala are independent and have authority to release prisoners without his knowledge, he said.

Bercik countered that under the system in place the chief judge has authority over, and responsibility for, those judges he oversees.

As the discussion progressed, Imami decided to revoke the bails and issued warrants for the men involved.

"I want to assure you that this was unintentional," Imami said.

Bercik said Imami would convene an investigation into the releases, and requested to be a part of the investigation, but made it a point to say that the choice of members for the investigative board was ultimately up to Imami.

Even though the bails were revoked, Bercik expressed some concern over whether any of the men would be brought back, but he stayed upbeat about the day's result.

"I was disappointed, but I'm going to go through the chief judge and work this out," Bercik said.  "We want the Iraqis to do this, run their own court system and mead out the punishments.  Today was a disappointment, but that's why I'm here, that's why we're here -- to make this work."

Craemer also expressed disappointment that the work that he and his team would be for nothing, but said it wouldn't effect his determination to do his job.

"I'm planning on going back out there and getting some pipeline thieves again soon," he said.