Bar News - December 15, 2006
Iraq’s Chief Justice Tells of Hardships, Hope in Rebuilding Court System
By: Beverly Rorick
In Iraq, where being a judge of any kind is to live a life fraught with danger and uncertainty, the Hon. Mahmat Al-Mahmoud leaves home in the morning not knowing whether he will return at night. What he does know is that he may not even make it to the Supreme Court where he is Chief Justice, for traveling to Court is to travel through a war zone, with the chance of attack imminent.
Al-Mahmoud’s eldest son was killed in such an attack….
Yet he stands, this small man with a fringe of white hair, in New Hampshire’s Supreme Court, on a quiet Sunday evening, to talk about Iraq’s justice system and his hopes for the future.
Speaking through a translator, Al-Mahmoud presented the first “Living History” address at the NH Supreme Court Historical Society meeting on Nov. 12, 2006; following his address, he received the Society’s first “Living History” award.
Two Justices Work for Rule of Law
Largely through the efforts of Retired Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Nadeau, Al-Mahmoud was able to visit the United States to speak to this group of New Hampshire citizens. Nadeau worked with the Iraqi justices in framing their new constitution in 2005—and has continued his work in the Middle East since his retirement in January of 2006.
In an article which appeared in the Concord Monitor on Sept. 3, 2006, Nadeau said, “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.”
Al-Mahmoud is one of those “resolute and determined” judges. He spoke proudly of Iraq’s long history of justice, calling it “as old as civilization, dating back 2100 years before Christianity—even before Hammurabi.” The Code of Hammurabi, composed around 1750 B.C. and recorded in Old Babylonian, is one of the earliest efforts at establishing the rule of law.
He went on to say that there have been periods of decadence in Iraq and that the recent past has been such a period. He called it “the time of the dictator” and said, “When justice falls down, civilization falls with it. We want to regain our [high level of] civilization—and that is the challenge facing us now.”
Justice Council Formed
In 2003 Iraq formed the Justice Council whose members were determined to rebuild the rule of law in Iraq, and to support the new democracy. Recognizing the need to protect the general freedoms of the Iraqi people, the Council determined to have an independent judiciary with independent judges. “Even separate buildings are desirable, said Al-Mahmoud. “We are still striving for independence in Iraq; some states that claim to have independence don’t really have it—they are under the control of political factions.”
Expressing the appreciation of Iraq’s justice system for the help given to it by the United States and other free nations, Al-Mahmoud declared, “To support justice in Iraq is to support justice in the world.” He described Iraq without the rule of law as having a great “emptiness.” Iraq had to build a court to deal with this emptiness and the absence of human rights. As the months passed, the judiciary became more unified and in 2005 formed a Supreme Court of nine members.
“My hope for the future,” said Al-Mahmoud, “is a peaceful Iraq that cooperates with the rest of humanity—a country that won’t interfere with others, nor be interfered with by others.”
Listening to the Audience
After he had finished his speech, Al-Mahmoud took questions from the audience. One question concerned the security needed to protect the judges and their families. “We need 4,000 more security officers,” said Al-Mahmoud, “because there are not just the nine Supreme Court justices, but many, many more judges throughout the country.”
When asked how many of the present judges are women, Al-Mahmoud said there are now 28, as opposed to only five under Saddam Hussein. “But we hope to have 40 soon—and 120 within the next three years.”
Reflecting the concern of a world watching the clashes of one Islamic faction with another, someone asked, “What is the role of Islamic law in the courts?”
“Islamic law is only one way of justice in Iraq,” replied Al-Mahmoud. “There are many other ways and they become most apparent in family law. In Iraq there are 12 Christian sects and a Jewish sect—and they get to apply their own laws when those laws are not opposed to the general rule of law.”
About the ongoing battles among the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds, Al-Mahmoud said, “They are all Iraqis first and, as far the courts are concerned, the rights of the citizens are the same for all groups.” He paused. “It is the terrorists in Iraq who cause the divisions.”
Courage Merits Recognition
At the conclusion of Justice Al-Mahmoud’s presentation, Chief Justice of the NH Supreme Court John T. Broderick presented him with the Society’s first “Life and Liberty” award (an engraved crystal image of New Hampshire) in recognition of his courageous judicial service, saying, “We admire and appreciate your work and the work of the Iraqi judiciary.”
Stepping up to the speaker’s desk, Judge Nadeau again reflected upon the day-to-day courage of all the Iraqi judges, and of their families, who also live under the threat of violence. Then he spoke about New Hampshire’s constitution. “It is the second oldest in the nation,” he said. “And we’re proud of it. It provides, ‘certain natural, essential, and inherent rights—among which are, the enjoying and defending [of] life and liberty.’” He then gave Al-Mahmoud a special leather-bound copy of the constitution.
Al-Mahmoud, visibly moved, said he would treasure the gift always.