Iraq: Justice delayed as lawyers live under threat

News and Press Release
Originally published
BAGHDAD, 30 April 2007 (IRIN) - When Iraqi lawyer Muhammad Shami, 44, decided to leave work early on 4 April, he would never have known that doing so would save his life. Soon after arriving home, he received a phone call from someone in the office next to his, saying that two of his colleagues had been shot dead at their desks.

"I was desperate and scared because I thought I was going to be the third victim. We had received many [death] threats over the past three months after defending certain cases, but we didn't expect to pay with our lives for working according to the law," said Shami.

"Since that day, I haven't gone back to my office. Unfortunately, I had to stop employing five people who were working with me," he added. "Some people in my office building often call me saying that masked men came to the office looking for me. When they don't find me they leave a message on the door saying: 'you remained and should be killed'."

Shami is now planning to flee to Jordan with his family.

Threats to judges and lawyers have escalated over the past 14 months in Iraq, in line with a general escalation in sectarian violence after the bombing of a Shia shrine in February 2006.

Hundreds of legal workers have left the country because of threats and persecution. This is delaying judicial processes and denying thousands of people their legal rights.

According to the Iraqi Lawyers Association (ILA), at least 210 lawyers and judges have been killed since the US-led invasion in 2003, in addition to dozens injured in attacks against them.

"Cases of adultery, honour killings, claims on property, children's custody and divorces have led to the deaths of many Iraqi lawyers as differences of sects and their [different] religious laws make up a big part of the prosecution or defence," Safa'a Farouk, a lawyer and spokesman for the ILA, said.

"There are hundreds of lawyers who are being threatened and who have been asked to abandon their cases. The hundreds who have left the country have left a huge gap in the judicial system in Iraq," Farouk added.

The ILA's Farouk said the number of lawyers offering services in Iraq had decreased by at least 40 percent over the past year or so. Hundreds of cases had been shelved, he said, awaiting lawyers to take them on.

With tensions so high in Iraq between the Sunni and Shia Muslim communities, legal workers are being put under intense pressure to make judgments according to religious sect. Lawyers often find themselves in a lose-lose situation.

"It is a very serious situation. If you win the case, you will be targeted by the other side but if you lose, your client will be the one who will kill you. Nowadays, clients usually look for lawyers from their own ethnic group or sect to help win their cases." Farouk said.

"Lawyers should be considered a neutral group but in Iraq it is different. Sadly, some lawyers and judges accept bribes and it just tarnishes our image of neutrality," he added.

On 18 April, two lawyers were killed after winning a case for a family who had had their house and belongings taken over by another family. The losers shot dead the lawyers while leaving the court, in the middle of the street.

"The most shocking thing is that no one did anything and those responsible for the murders were not charged. They are free and keep threatening the family who won the case," said Jua'ad Mustafa, a lawyer who was present at the incident.

"We are desperate because we cannot work safely at all. Sectarian violence has now affected lawyers' offices and the courts. Neither the government nor the security forces are doing anything to change the situation," Mustafa added.

It is ordinary Iraqis who suffer most from this violence against members of the judicial system. They have to beg lawyers to take up their cases, particularly when the cases are dangerous or involve members of different sects.

"For the past four months I have been trying to find a lawyer who can defend me and my daughter and punish my husband who for years has been torturing and beating us at home. But everyone refuses, saying that if we win, my husband would kill them," Umm Khalil, a 41-year-old mother of three, said.

"Until I find someone, I will have to run from my husband who has vowed to kill me and my daughter for having him charged in court," she added.