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Bar News - September 3, 2004

New Hampshire Lawyers Work to Restore Rule of Law in Iraq, Afghanistan


In the Line of Duty:

Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part feature on New Hampshire attorneys involved in the rebuilding of the justice systems in Iraq and Afghanistan or called up as members of the armed forces to support the peacekeeping/humanitarian efforts of the American-led coalition forces.

Part 1 focuses on civilian attorneys who volunteered for various legal-related programs and Part 2, which will run in the Sept. 17 issue of Bar News, highlights the activities of National Guard members and Reservists serving in those countries.

MIKE GUNNISON IS visibly moved as he points his finger toward a computer screen showing the digital image of a group of Iraqis and Americans who worked in the Central Criminal Court of Iraq (CCCI) with him while he was on a three-month assignment for the Overseas Prosecutorial Development Assistance and Training Office, part of the US Dept. of Justice.

"See this woman here," he says, singling out a young Iraqi in traditional clothing, the only female in the photograph. "Her father was killed because she worked for our office." He also talks of the determination of the Iraqi judges to re-establish a fair and corruption-free Iraqi court system. "They are some of the bravest people I’ve ever met," says Gunnison, explaining that, like the woman in the photo, their families and homes are being regularly threatened and attacked. One of the judges Gunnison worked with has acid burns on his face, a reminder of the time he was imprisoned and tortured on the order of one of Saddam’s sons for refusing to execute a group of prostitutes.

Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael J. Gunnison, U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of New Hampshire, is one of a number of New Hampshire attorneys that are voluntarily, as civilians, leaving the safety and comfort of their homes to help re-establish the rule of law and build a stable foundation for a civil justice system in the terrorism- and war-torn nations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Other local lawyers have traded their law practice routines for National Guard or Reserve military billets, supporting the U.S. armed forces’ peace keeping and nation-building roles in assisting the newly-formed sovereign governments.

Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael J. Gunnison, U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of New Hampshire, stands with a "normal" force protection detail, provided by the US Army’s 1st Cavalry Division. Gunnison was en route to a meeting with Iraq’s Chief Justice, Medhat Mahmood, outside the "Green Zone" in Baghdad.

Michael K. Skibbie, formerly director of the state’s public defender program and a policy specialist with the Disability Rights Center in Concord, and former legal counsel to Gov. Craig Benson, Christopher P. Reid, who currently is a private contractor through the International Criminal Investigator Training and Assistance Program (administered by the US Dept. of Justice), are two other civilian attorneys who have voluntarily taken on missions to help the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively, with issues pertaining to their justice systems.

Michael J. Gunnison

Mike Gunnison, who is the federal anti-terrorism coordinator for the state, volunteered to go to Iraq. What moved him to do so began when his wife’s uncle was killed during the 9/11-terrorism attack on New York City, and the fact that he has family members that are, and were, in the New York City police and fire departments. "I felt like I needed to contribute something."

While in Iraq this spring, Gunnison was involved in several projects. The first of these was the training of judges. The training program is designed to bring the judges up-to-date about worldwide legal developments following their 35 years of isolation under Saddam’s rule. It also assists them in implementing effective reforms during the transitional period, including establishing the concepts of: right to counsel; right against self-incrimination; and right to be brought before a judicial officer within 24 hours of an arrest.

"One of the things that I will always remember about being in Iraq, was receiving a package from Congressman Charlie Bass enclosing a US flag that had been flown over the US Capitol in Washington, DC," says Mike Gunnison, an attorney who volunteered to assist the Iraqi government in rebuilding its judicial system. On Memorial Day, he and American colleagues, left to right, 1st Lt. Bruce Fein, an Army civil affairs officer and attorney from Washington, DC, and Lt. Col. Bob Coacher, an active duty Air Force judge advocate officer, flew the flag over the rooftop of the Presidential Palace in Baghdad.

Additionally, Gunnison was appointed to the Judicial Review Committee in Iraq by Ambassador Paul Bremer, former U.S. Overseer for Iraq. This is a six-member committee made up of three Iraqi judges and three international members. "I, literally, was involved in the hiring and firing of judges," says Gunnison. The Iraqi system of justice is based upon the French Inquisitive System model, where the court—not the executive branch—investigates cases and brings charges before a trial court consisting of three judges and no jury. Gunnison explains that while this system is unlike that in the United States, it is a functional system that was used for cases that the Hussein family had no interest in. Saddam Hussein had set up a parallel system of Intelligence and Security Courts for political prisoners. "These were a sham," says Gunnison.

"A fundamental decision was made to reappoint judges who had experience in the Iraqi court system, but only those judges who embraced the concept of judicial independence." The Committee removed judges from the bench who were bribed, corrupt, had served on Saddam’s Intelligence and Security Courts, or who were high-level Ba’athists or had other strong regime ties. Two of the three Iraqi members of the Judicial Review Committee had been imprisoned and tortured under the Saddam regime for making decisions the Husseins did not like.

While in Iraq, Gunnison points out that he did not feel threatened personally, but that he was concerned for the safety of the judges, who live with the probability of retribution by terrorist elements in Iraq that do not want to see a democratic government succeed.

One of the events that had a deep effect on Mike Gunnison, shown above looking at debris, and on the judges at the Central Criminal Court of Iraq (CCCI) was the May 17, 2004 bombing that occurred just outside the building (shown below). The terrorist blast killed the President of the Iraq Governing Council. Gunnison was attending a meeting outside of the building at the time. "Several of the guards whom we had gotten to know were injured, but none were killed because of the protection supplied by the new ‘T-walls’ that had been erected by the U.S. Marshals Service," he said.

"It is an extremely violent place," says Gunnison. "I think the Iraqi judges are more at risk for retaliation because their whereabouts, and that of their families, are known." Of the six trial court judges appointed, three have been attacked. He says that the judges he met are not letting fear get in the way of their work. "These judges are fearless," says Gunnison recounting an afternoon meeting he attended where gunfire erupted outside of the building they were in. "No one batted an eyelash. They just continued to talk and drink their tea."

Gunnison also assisted the CCCI in their judicial investigations and helped draft various laws, including an Iraqi wiretap law that would place the new Iraqi National Intelligence Service (equivalent to the CIA) under judicial oversight. "It will be up to the new Iraqi government to implement these new laws," says Gunnison. "The government is being strongly encouraged to require judicial approval of wiretap and other surveillance applications. It is a work in progress."

Standing outside of the Republican Palace, former headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority that now houses State Dept. offices, are NH Army National Guard Maj. John Coughlin, Chris Reid, and Mike Gunnison. The three New Hampshire attorneys were reunited when Coughlin, stationed at the Camp Victory military base outside of downtown Baghdad, stopped by to visit Reid at the building, where Gunnison also worked.

Michael K. Skibbie

An attorney currently on leave from his Disability Rights Center job, Mike Skibbie has spent the summer in Kabul training Afghan defense attorneys for Legal Aid of Afghanistan. He is on this assignment through the International Legal Foundation, a non-profit New York-based organization that created the Kabul legal aid office to train, and act as, public defenders—providing a balance to prosecutors and judges and ensuring a fair justice system.

Concord attorney Michael Skibbie, on leave from his position at the Disabilities Rights Center, is spending six months working with Legal Aid of Afghanistan in Kabul.

At presstime, Skibbie was lead attorney in the defense of one of three Americans charged with misrepresenting themselves as US government agents, setting up a private jail, and kidnapping, torturing and interrogating Afghans they believed were terrorists. The principal defendant maintains that he was acting with the knowledge of the US government and that his group interrogated but did not torture those they detained.

The New Hampshire attorney is representing Edward Caraballo as a Legal Aid of Afghanistan lawyer. Caraballo is a documentary filmmaker who was covering the activities of Jonathan "Jack" Idema, the principal defendant in the case, and is charged with being an accessory to the alleged crimes. According to an MSNBC re port, Skibbie said that he never expected to be defending an American when he signed up for the six-month pilot program to provide legal assistance for criminal defendants in that country.

Christopher P. Reid

Christopher Reid, a New Hampshire attorney, is spending a year as an advisor to the Iraqi government on criminal investigation issues.

Chris Reid is spending a year as an advisor to the Iraqi government on issues dealing with the criminal investigation aspects of the justice system there.

Reid declined to give details on his project due to its sensitive nature; he said that the work he is doing to assist in improving the criminal justice system is personally satisfying to him despite the dangerous environment for Americans in that country.

The Rule of Law

Although each of the attorneys featured here has unique reasons for volunteering and are involved in very different projects, one thing they share in common is a desire to share their knowledge and love of the law. Assisting in restoring the rule of law in these turbulent countries goes beyond establishment of a just legal system; it offers hope and a basis for improving the overall social condition for the Iraqi and Afghani people.

The stories of the military attorneys who are risking their lives to help restore justice in nations devastated by years of brutal totalitarian regimes and a culture of governmental corruption will be featured in the next issue of the NH Bar News.

If you are a Bar member who would like to have your story included in this series, contact Managing Editor Anita Becker at (603) 224-6942, ext. 129 or



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