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Iraq: Exiled Iraqi Jurists Seek To Reshape Society By Rule Of Law

  • Robert McMahon

A prominent group of Iraqi jurists living outside the country has prepared a detailed report on ways to repair Iraq's legal code and restore rule of law to the country. The group released the report last week in Baghdad and in New York, where members met with UN officials. The United Nations is expected to take a lead role in promoting legal reforms in postwar Iraq and officials there say the report could help guide their efforts, RFE/RL reports.

United Nations, 19 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A group of former Iraqi judges, lawyers, and law professors has issued a plan to help Iraqi society recover from the trauma of Saddam Hussein's rule.

The report was issued last week in New York and Baghdad by the Iraqi Jurists' Association, which represents Iraqi legal experts now residing in the United States, Britain, and other countries.

Group members presented the report to representatives from several UN agencies. The United Nations is waiting for the Security Council to spell out its role in postwar Iraq but there appears to be broad support for the UN to help enact legal reforms.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told RFE/RL that the Iraqi jurists' report could be a useful guide.

"They presented the UN with about a 700-page document, which was a very thorough analysis of Iraqi laws that were on the books and the Iraqi system and it is the kind of document that could be of great use to the UN in post-conflict work in terms of the judicial system," Dujarric said.

The jurists told a news conference after their UN meeting that their guiding principle is to institute a respect for rule of law in post-Hussein Iraq.

The plan -- compiled by about 80 jurists in the Iraqi diaspora -- calls for sweeping institutional reforms and an overhaul of the penal code. It also recommends forming a truth and reconciliation commission to deal with the large number of people expected to be implicated in atrocities under Hussein's rule.

Their report recommends that a range of laws instituted by Hussein be repealed. For example, it would repeal a law that carries a punishment of death for anyone publishing unauthorized information, says Sermid Al-Sarraf, an Iraqi-American lawyer based in Los Angeles who is a member of the jurists' group.

Al-Sarraf told reporters the group has participated with the U.S. State Department's Future of Iraq Project. But he stressed that the report was conducted independently and that the jurists are not representing U.S. government policies.

There was unanimous sentiment among the jurists, said Al Sarraf, that Iraqis should be in charge of prosecuting crimes committed on their soil.

"We believe that to establish the rule of law in Iraq, the Iraqi public must have confidence in its judiciary and once an independent judiciary is created, it must have the full authority to prosecute the crimes that occurred by Iraqi perpetrators against Iraqi victims on Iraqi soil. So from a legal point of view, the jurisdiction lies in Iraq itself and in Iraqi courts," Al-Sarraf said.

This corresponds to views expressed by the U.S. government, which is seeking Security Council authority to administer Iraq for another 12 months. Washington has made clear it does not intend to turn over Iraqis suspected of war crimes to an international tribunal.

The U.S. ambassador-at-large for war-crimes issues -- Pierre-Richard Prosper -- said last month that an "Iraqi-led process" should prosecute war crimes. He said Washington would help with technical and financial assistance.

Non-governmental organizations like Human Rights Watch have expressed doubts that Iraq has enough jurists and prosecutors to handle such a task.

But the jurists meeting in New York last week were confident that enough Iraqi legal expertise is available inside and outside the country to help carry out war crimes prosecutions as well as enact legal reforms.

They said the chairman of the Iraqi Jurists' Association, Tariq Ali Al-Saleh, has been in Baghdad for more than a week, holding meetings with dozens of legal experts still in the country. Al-Saleh distributed an Arab-language version of the group's report.

Another member of the jurists' group, Moniem Al-Khatib, practiced law in Baghdad for 20 years before leaving in 1990 at the time of the invasion of Kuwait. Now based in London, he told RFE/RL he's eager for his country to return to a rule-based society and end the chaos.

Legal reform, Al-Khatib said, should underpin the reconstruction efforts planned for Iraq.

"The only way you can reconstruct Iraq is to base it on [the] solid rock of a legal system. Without it, you are just building on sand. And therefore, we are going back as good Iraqis, trying to educate people and [make them aware] that there is no such thing as an alternative to the legal system," Al-Khatib said.

The Iraqi jurists told reporters they expect the country's laws to continue to include a blend of Islamic law and Western-based legal principles. Although the country has a Muslim majority, they stressed that Iraqi society would not accept a theocratic state.

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