Iraqi Chief Justice Madhat Al-Mahmood said the country’s judicial system has developed significantly in the past decade, despite the resurgence of violence in the past year. But the courts still need more personnel and training and a greater public awareness of human rights and the rule of law, he said.

bill taylor and chief justice shake hands

In the latest of a series of appearances at USIP by prominent figures from all branches of Iraq’s government as well as religious leaders and others in civil society, Al-Mahmood outlined the development of the country’s justice system. He cited its tremendous workload in a country struggling with security and political tensions. Such strains also threaten plans for nationwide parliamentary elections on April 30.

While there is political pressure on the judiciary, they don’t buckle, Al-Mahmood said. And once cases reach the courts, they are resolved expeditiously. Alleged delays and abuses most often occur in the earlier stages, he said.

“The status of the Iraqi justice system has advanced,” rather than slipping back, said Al-Mahmood, who is head of the Higher Judicial Council (HJC), a body responsible for the oversight of all courts across Iraq. He also has been head of the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council, the country’s top court, since 2005 and has worked as a prosecutor or judge since 1960. Following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Al-Mahmood was made a supervisor, or minister, for the Ministry of Justice by the Coalition Provisional Authority. .

USIP has worked to support Iraq’s justice system in a number of ways. As a result of a conference organized by USIP with partners on the ground to address problems created by Iraq’s federal system of governance, for example, Al-Mahmood reached agreement with the Kurdistan Judicial Council in 2009 to form a Joint Coordination Committee. The goal is to increase cooperation between the courts of the Kurdish region and Baghdad. The coordination panel still operates to this day.

Al-Mahmood said the number of judges in Iraq has increased from about 580 in 2003 to more than 1,300 last year. He counted 138 additional courts established during that time, for a total of 797 that have tried almost 1.7 million cases involving human rights, commercial law, traffic violations and other issues. The rate of resolution of cases once they arrive in the court system ranges from 94 percent to 98 percent, he said.

“We dealt with these cases in a human manner, according to human rights,” regardless of the parties involved, he said. “Justice has made progress.” Still, he said, judicial authorities are “seeking to be better and better.”

Most of the criticism leveled at the execution of justice in Iraq is targeted at the earlier stages, including allegations of abuses by police and widespread illegal detentions. Human Rights Watch reported in January 2013 that Iraqi security forces “arbitrarily conducted mass arrests and tortured detainees to extract confessions with little or no evidence of wrongdoing.”

Even detentions at times are exaggerated for political purposes, Al-Mahmood said. He cited an allegation that has spurred some of the protests by Sunnis against the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is Shia -- allegations that the number of women being held in police detention was in the thousands. Al-Mahmood said the actual figure turned out to be 104, and that many of those were released outright and some with bond. In a February report on abuses by security forces against women in detention, Human Rights Watch put the number of women held illegally in the “thousands.”

In 2013, 204,206 people were arrested in Iraq, and 192,964 cases were resolved, leaving a net figure of 11,260 remaining in detention, Al-Mahmood said.

Al-Mahmood rejected occasional allegations levied against him that he and some of the decisions of the Supreme Court inappropriately favor Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Al-Mahmood also has confronted allegations in the past that he was close to then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

“I did not -- and will not -- say to the judge, `Please resolve this issue’“ in favor of anyone in particular, Al-Mahmood said. The court can’t refuse to accept cases brought before it, but it does respect the principle of separation of powers. Inevitably, when parties in a case lose, they often allege bias, he said.

“The court has not issued a decision for Maliki because he is a Maliki,” Al-Mahmood said.

Al-Mahmood alluded to the sectarian divisions in Iraq between Shia Muslims, which include Maliki, and the Sunnis who dominated Hussein’s Baath Party, and to the strains between Iraq’s Arabs, Kurds and minorities such as Turkmen, who make up the country’s third-largest ethnicity. The chief justice noted that the Supreme Court that he heads, which also includes eight other members, is made up of a cross-section of ethnicities and religions.

“It’s not possible that all of those agree, when they are from different regions,” he said. “So they cannot agree to violate the constitution.”

“I defy all politicians to say that the Supreme Court has issued a verdict in contradiction with the Constitution in favor of any of the three” top leaders in the country, he said, referring to the prime minister, the president and the speaker of the Council of Representatives.

Still, sectarianism plagues political discourse in Iraq, artificially exacerbating economic, social and other strains, Al-Mahmood said.

“Sectarianism was created by politicians,” he said. The Sunni-Shia distinction in Islam isn’t intended for political purposes, he said. “Politicians are riding these waves for their own sake and not in the interests of faith.”

Other Iraqi leaders have sounded a similar theme at USIP. Rowsch N. Shaways, Iraq’s federal deputy prime minister, said during a visit on March 5 that the country’s political divisions will require considerable efforts at reconciliation and better communication among major political parties to prevent a widening of the divide.

The court system, for its part, still needs more personnel and equipment to handle its case loads, Al-Mahmood said. A system of human rights courts also is in development. Both judges and the Iraqi public are still learning about related United Nations and national standards and laws.

“We need to raise our capability and capacity,” he said. “We also need to spread the culture of human rights. We still need to inform politicians to respect the independence of justice and not to interfere in it, and not to pour their conflicts into the pot of justice.”

Viola Gienger is a senior writer at USIP.

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