Al Kut courts slowly coming around

21 Jul 2003 | Army Sgt. Chris Carney

In the United States, the public loves the drama of the courtroom. From Perry Mason to John Grisham, judges and lawyers are popular.

However, fans of such legal entertainment would be lost in Wasit province. In Al Kut, the challenge of the court system is not just holding fair trials, but to set it on an efficient course.

Marine Capt. Sean R. Dunn, a New Orleans, La. resident and staff judge advocate for 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, is in charge of ensuring that the court system in Wasit province becomes a viable public institution that works for the Iraqi people.

The civil court system is working so far, Dunn said. His task now is to "kick start the criminal legal system."

The criminal law system is based on Iraqi law and is foreign to what most Americans are familiar with.

There are both major and minor differences, but the end result is supposed to be a fair meeting out of justice, he said.

For example, after an arrest, a suspect is kept in jail until an arraignment in front of an investigative judge. Currently, the investigative judge hears the case within 72 hours. However, this established time period was not in place previous to the coalition's arrival. Before, cases were reviewed at a judge's leisure. As a result, a suspect could sit in jail numerous days before his or her case was heard.

"The military has a standard that cases must be reviewed within seven days of arrest," Dunn said. "I set up a system where cases would be heard within 72 hours, which is approaching civilian standards back home."

Once the case is heard, the first person the suspect sees is the investigative judge.

"The investigative judge has no U.S. equivalent," Dunn said. "The Iraqi system is investigative-judge driven."

Next, the judge can grant bail or move the case to a higher court. However, the bail system in Iraq is not a cash system. When a defendant is granted bail, a guarantor swears on the good faith and character of the accused. If the accused does not show up for the trial time then the guarantor is put in jail.

The main job of the investigative judge is gathering evidence.

"The investigative judge has to be a neutral magistrate," Dunn said. "He collects evidence from both prosecution and the defense, the police are done with their work after the arrest."

Enter the defense attorney.

Under the regime of Saddam Hussein, defense attorneys where not allowed until the next level of proceedings. Dunn was instrumental is getting this practice changed so that defendants could have representation at the investigative level as well.

"Cases sent to a higher level are based entirely on the work done by the investigative judge," he said.

Iraqi higher courts are comparable to misdemeanor and trial courts in the United States, but are based on potentiality of sentencing.  The Jen court is for crimes carrying penalties of up to five years and the Jenia court deals with those with penalties of five years or more.

One large stumbling block, however, is that no cases are being heard in the higher courts now.

Judge Nemah Hussein, the investigative judge, has been working on clearing cases. Both men agree the judicial wheels need to turn faster.

"We want the court system in Wasit returned to a full-functional level, but not a single case in Al Kut has been brought to final adjudication," Dunn said.

Dunn held a meeting recently with the criminal judges and demanded action.

"You have a fully-functional courthouse, with air-conditioning, fans and lights, a complete staff, a police department that is arresting people," Dunn said to them. "From the records under coalition guidance (the police) are doing a better job than under Saddam."

"Many people have been in jail too long, not because of Judge Nemah, but because of the higher level courts," he added.

To reduce congestion at the jail, Dunn said he would release some Iraqis who have been in jail for minor offenses, such as drunk and disorderly or curfew violation.

"I have never tried to intercede with a decision of the court and I am limiting my action to releasing people from jail," he said. "This will provide some justice to those in jail for too long, will reduce the crowding in the jail and allow the judges to do their work and focus on important cases. Hopefully, this will be the last time I do this."