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Bar News - September 22, 2006

Middle East Diary: Determined Iraqi Judges Are Profiles in Courage


 Judge Nadeau

Retired NH Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Nadeau listens to translated discussion, as a moderator and presenter, during an ABA training program that works with Iraqi judges on constitutional and judicial reforms held in Amman, Jordan.


The kingdom of Jordan sits at the center of the modern Arab world, bordered on the west by Israel and the Dead Sea, on the north by Syria, on the east by Iraq and on the south by Saudi Arabia. You cannot visit his country without feeling a deep sense of history.


Jordan has biblical roots and was part of the civilizations of Greece, Rome and Persia, evidence of which can be seen throughout the land, not far from Ammanís five-star hotels, first-class restaurants and contemporary shopping plazas. Jordan is a constitutional monarchy under which near-total control rests with King Abdullah, whose reign is strengthened by the good relations with the United States firmly established by his late father, King Hussein.


So Amman, the capital of Jordan and a modern, bustling city, was a logical choice for the American Bar Association to conduct a training program for Iraqi trial judges at the beginning of June and to host the first conference of the newly formed Arab Council for Judicial and Legal Studies at the end of the month.


I have been participating in bar association programs in the region for years. In 2005, I was asked to work with Iraqi judges on the constitution and judicial reforms. For me, that was a great opportunity because my grandparents came to the United States in 1905 from Lebanon, and I felt a personal connection with the Iraqi judges.


That connection was made even stronger by the reception the Iraqis gave me and the ease with which we worked together. So I was excited when I was asked to participate in the additional Iraqi judge training program and the Arab Council conference.


Our task at the first event was to train judges who deal primarily with property questions, minor disputes and family issues. Twenty judges and administrators had been selected by the chief justice of Iraq from all regions of the country. They came from Arbil in the north, Baghdad in the center, Basrah in the South and locations in between. While we didnít ask, I suspect the participants reflected the demographics of the country, which means that probably 60 percent were Shiite, 20 percent Sunni and 20 percent Kurd.


These judges drive to work every day knowing there is a strong possibility they will not get to court without an assassination attempt. In the past three years, 47 judges have been killed. Their families are not safe when they leave their homes to shop, their children are not safe when they leave home to go to school, and they do not leave their homes after 6 p.m. because of roaming death squads.


The judges work in courts where there may be electricity two hours a day; where there is too little fuel to run generators donated to them; where they sometimes purchase fuel on the black market that destroys generators. They are hindered by a crippled infrastructure, lost records, sparse resources and an uncertain future. Yet these Iraqi judges continue to work daily.


The stories of their lives are hard to comprehend. Several have left their homes because they are recognized and targeted. Three are living in a room at the court or the Council of Justice building. Others live with relatives or friends. They disguise themselves in public by wearing old clothing and anything that can make them look ordinary.


One judge lives about the same distance from his court as I do from the New Hampshire Supreme Court. Imagine how foolish I felt about complaining about the miserable drive to Concord on Route 4. He has no safe route to court, has to wait in line for gas and doesnít know if there will be any or if the guard will let him fill up without a bribe. All while he is wondering if he will be gunned down as he sits in his car.


It is difficult to make a presentation on the independence of the judiciary and the role of judges in a democracy in the face of the abysmal conditions these judges confront every day. If you are looking for profiles in courage, you can find them here. I wish every American citizen could spend 10 minutes with one of these judges.


Our training session covered what judges can do to gain and maintain public trust, to reform and advance the judiciary, to manage and control caseloads, to serve and protect the public.


There were new judges and senior judges, young judges and old judges, all with the same goal: to find a way to keep the court system operating and free of undue influence. Cultural, political and religious pressures make the task crushingly difficult.


The judges are all under the administration of the chief justice of Iraq, Medhat Mahmoud. He knows, as do all of us working with these judges, that this generation will undergo extreme sacrifice to create a strong judiciary for generations to come. He is highly respected by the judges and all who come in contact with him.


I had worked with him on constitutional issues in 2005 and found him to be capable, with a clear vision for the judicial branch of government and the courage to create a respected judiciary. In May, he lost his only son, a 22-year-old attorney with a 4-month-old child, to an assassin.


These judges have a strong sense of justice and of their mission. But they recognize that they will have to learn new skills and persuade their citizens that the courts no longer function as an arm of a dictator or political party but are truly independent and represent the interests of the people first.


Whether this can be accomplished as the political process unfolds is uncertain. Making the transition to a strong judicial branch of government is not easy because of the 30 years of history under Saddam Hussein and the subservient role of courts before that.


The conference later in the month was a different kind of program. It brought together ministers of justice, judges, legal scholars, public interest leaders and other professionals from Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Yemen to discuss issues of mutual concern.


The groupís mandate is to promote professional development and independence of the judiciary, to facilitate interaction and coordination among judicial institutions and to support the transparency of judicial systems and procedures.


As an American judge accustomed to a stable environment, with a history of judicial independence, accountability, transparency and public trust, I find it challenging and enlightening to confront the problems facing judiciaries in this region. For some countries like Iraq, security is the main problem. There is also a lack of public trust. Most judges have little experience with the responsibilities and prerogatives of a truly independent judicial branch of government or the administrative skills necessary to manage it.


This conference was a first step to start a regional dialogue about the changing role of judges and of the judicial branch itself. Participants shared information about the status of the judiciaries in their countries and the problems they face.


I was especially excited when the Lebanon representatives asked about the American Bar Association conducting a judicial program in Beirut. In fact, before the violence of July 12 erupted, we had exchanged e-mails to get things started. It is typical of Lebanese determination that they still talk about preparing the judiciary for the coming restoration of the country.


I would not describe the judges I have met from the region as optimistic and confident. They are resolute and determined. As we have seen, too many events beyond their control can, in an instant, undo days, weeks, months and years of hard work.


Despite those obstacles, and personal risks that most of us canít imagine, the Iraqi judges persevere in their conviction that Iraq must have an independent judiciary. They remain hopeful it will be achieved.


No doubt, people of goodwill throughout the world will continue to work with these courageous people because, as we have learned, without a strong judiciary, individual rights, economic justice and due process do not exist.


Joseph P. Nadeau is a retired New Hampshire Supreme Court justice.


This article was reprinted with permission from The Concord Monitor and Judge Nadeau. It was published in the Monitor on Sept. 3, 2006.



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