Iraqi lawyer Ahmed al-Abadi put up with years of threatening phone calls for taking on sensitive sectarian cases but, after he narrowly escaped death when three shots were fired at his car last year, he could take no more.
Abadi had just finished successfully defending
a woman accused of involvement in a sectarian killing and he thinks this was the
reason behind the gun attack - but he decided against seeking legal
"I did not go to the police station to report
it. I knew it would not get me anywhere," he said, seated in the lawyers' room
of Rusafa appeal court in eastern Baghdad. "It has affected me mentally and
sapped my enthusiasm for work. I started to handle only easy cases which do not
cause me problems."
After years of vicious sectarian strife between
Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, individual cases are increasingly coming to court.
But justice suffers because lawyers are an easy target in a country where rule
of law remains weak, tribal loyalties take precedence and sectarian armed groups
Abadi is one of many lawyers who have suffered
constant threats and intimidation from relatives of the accused or the
plaintiff. Lawyers come into contact with both sides of a case and they must
appear in court, where everyone can see their faces. Lawyers say some judges
treat them as if they were involved in the crime simply because they defend the
"We are very sensitive about terrorism cases,"
the 55-year-old Abadi said, employing the term regularly used to describe
sectarian cases in Iraq.
"After taking more than one terrorist case, I
quit," he said as he removed his robe after attending the guilty verdict in a
corruption case of two clients who worked in a government-spending
RISING LAWYER DEATH TOLL
Sectarian warfare plagued Iraq in 2006-7, when
death squads, insurgents and militias claimed thousands of victims.
Violence is no longer an around-the-clock
menace but remains common. At least 116 people were killed and about 300 wounded
in bomb and gun attacks on July 23 - by far the bloodiest day since U.S. troops
withdrew in December, eight years after the invasion that toppled dictator
And tensions between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims
still run high as politicians feud over power-sharing in government.
Practicing law is often a life-threatening
Iraq's lawyers syndicate says 103 lawyers were
killed between 2003-2008 but the actual number could be double that since not
all cases are reported. The syndicate, which has 50,000 members, lacks figures
on victims for after 2008.
Abadi defended a woman who was accused with her
husband of kidnapping and killing her husband's friend, a Shi'ite, when he
visited them in their home in a Sunni district of Baghdad.
The couple said gunmen had broken into their
house and kidnapped the guest, but the victim's relatives accused them of the
crime. Abadi, who was the woman's lawyer, won the case and his client was
released from prison.
Shortly afterwards three gunmen in a BMW car
opened fire at him when he was driving and three bullets whizzed past his head,
shattering the window. He stopped his car, and they thought he was dead and
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the judiciary
faces enormous pressure in Iraq, particularly lawyers when intimidation,
including threats through text messages, is a fact of life.
"The lack of security allows lawyers to be
threatened particularly if they take on sensitive cases and those who make
threats are able to do so with impunity," Samer Muscati, a researcher at the New
York-based watchdog, said.
'SIR, LEAVE THIS CASE ALONE'
Thair al-Qassim, a Baghdad-based specialist in
sectarian cases, said he has been threatened 32 times.
His son was kidnapped and beaten severely in
2006 and only freed when Qassim paid a $40,000 ransom. He was kidnapped briefly
himself in 2009 after militiamen targeted his car, interrogated him and told him
to stop covering certain cases. He managed to escape unharmed.
Qassim has endured hand grenade attacks,
threatening phone calls and text messages and a letter thrown into his
"All that because I defend Sunnis against
Shi'ites or Shi'ites against Sunnis," Qassim said.
"When I defend a client who is from the Sunni
sect...someone from the other side, the Shi'ite side, calls me and says 'Sir,
leave this case, otherwise you will face regrettable consequences' - and vice
But Qassim said he did not abandoned these
cases because this is how he earns his living.
He was part of the defense team for an Iraqi
journalist who threw his shoes at then-U.S. President George W. Bush in December
2008. He received a phone call from someone telling him to drop the case or he
or his family would be killed.
It proved an empty threat - but it sticks in
Apart from the threats, lawyers say they are
often prevented from meeting clients, who undergo lengthy interrogations. The
Iraqi legal system is especially slow and bureaucratic.
According to Iraqi criminal law, arrested
people should be presented to a judge in 24 hours, but this rarely happens in
practice, lawyer Farhan al-Bighani said. "They should not stay at the mercy of a
police officer for a month or longer just because he wants to extract a
Abdul-Sattar al-Birqdar, spokesman for the
Supreme Judicial Council, said lawyers could present their complaints and the
council would take legal procedures in such cases.
Lawyers complain some judges are under
political pressure, make decisions based on sectarian or tribal affiliations or
are corrupt, charges rejected by the Supreme Judicial Council which says judges
are independent, and not politically affiliated.
In one of Iraq's most high-profile and
contested cases, Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni politician in the
Iraqiya bloc, says he is being targeted in a legal investigation partially
because of sectarianism.
Hashemi fled Baghdad in December when the
Shi'ite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sought his arrest on
charges that he ran a death squad.
Hashemi has said he is ready to face trial, but
not in a Baghdad court, which he believes is under the sway of Maliki in a
judicial system tainted by political bias.
Maliki's allies say the Hashemi trial is not
political. But many Iraqi Sunnis say they see a sectarian hand behind the case,
accusing Maliki of shoring up his position at their expense.
Lawyers and Human Rights Watch criticized a
government campaign in November to arrest Baathists and former military officers
who authorities maintained had plotted to oust Maliki one month before the
departure of U.S. troops.
Maliki said more than 600 people had been
arrested on evidence that they sought to undermine security in Iraq.
"We have spoken to lawyers and the families of
detainees who said they would not take on these types of cases because it would
put the lawyers at risk," HRW's Muscati said.
For lawyer Abadi who dodged the bullets, the
lawyers syndicate is not doing enough to defend his profession. He even laments
that lawyers cannot be armed to defend themselves.
"The lawyer is in the courtyard, fighting
alone," he said.
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