Courts in Karbala making progress

2 Jul 2004 |

In the main courthouse where many judicial records were burned by looters, the interim judiciary system is facing a number of challenges head-on with the help of Marine and Army forces.

The Iraqi legal system has gone through significant changes with the removal of the Saddam Hussein's former regime, but is still an Iraqi system, said Maj. Bernard J. Bercik, an Army reservist with Philadelphia-based 304th Civil Affairs Brigade. Bercik is assigned to a judge advocate general team for the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines in Karbala.

"Right now it's still operating under the Iraqi penal code, which I believe dates back to 1969," Bercik said.

Some changes have taken place already, such as the abolition of the revolutionary courts used to try political prisoners, and the suspension of executions as a form of punishment.

Bercik said he did not know the official reason for the suspension of capital punishment, but believed it may be linked to the casual application of executions in the past.

"Under the old regime, capital punishment was used in such a capricious manner that I would guess it was suspended until the coalition forces are sure the judiciary is mature enough to use it appropriately," Bercik said.

In the past, prisoners serving terms more than a month were taken to the jails in Al Hillah or Baghdad since the jail in Karbala is designed for short-term incarcerations, Bercik said.

"I am working to identify where the longer-term prisoners should now be sent," he said.

The current judges are temporary appointees until elections can be organized, Bercik said.

As coalition forces work to rebuild southern Iraqi cities, such as Karbala, they are working to empower local judiciaries. Nevertheless, the coalition is the same before the law as anyone else during court proceedings, Bercik said.

When the coalition troops bring criminals - many apprehended during patrols - to the court, the burden of proof falls on them as any aggrieved party in the United States system, he said.

"I like it when the judges review my files, check my evidence for sufficiency, that's good," Bercik said.

As the coalition representative to the courts in Karbala, Bercik makes sure the judges are doing their job and following Iraqi law, he said.

"I usually review the files of about ten prisoners every week, and it is a good sampling to make sure they are getting due process," Bercik said.  "It's a good system of checks and balances for both the Iraqi judiciary and the coalition forces."

The courthouse itself was badly damaged by looters and will require about $100,000 in repairs.

"We put in a request, and it's been approved, we're just waiting for the money," Bercik said.

Without electricity in some of the offices and without the money for upgrades, the court is managing to process cases in a timely manner, Bercik said.

The Iraqis are already beginning to rebuild and reorganize.

"Each day I come to the courthouse, another office is open," he said.  "All the real-estate records were in one office, but now they've reorganized and put in separate offices based on old and current records."

Old real-estate records were saved from the looters by office workers, who took the records home with them when war began, said Bercik.

"These documents go back to the 1920s and 1930s, and date back to when Iraq first received independence from the Ottoman Empire," he said.  "These are actual books going back to the 20's, not microfiche like we have in the states."

In the Minors Office, legal issues concerning orphans and money or property are handed. Muhammed Wajid Ali, who is in charge of the office, had taken all the records, including the office computer, to his home to keep them safe.

According to Bercik, there is a plan to hire security guards for the courthouse.

Besides security issues, Ali said he needs funds also to pay to children who were orphaned in previous wars, an item previously taken care of by the defunct Iraqi Ministry of Defense.

Bercik said that payment to war widows and orphans has been approved at higher levels and is waiting for funding from coalition coffers.

"These are the problems we have while trying to stand up the court system," Bercik said after a day of walking through the courthouse and visiting the various offices.  "My mission is to work with the judiciary and make sure it's functional and working within the rule of law."