Among Iraqis, myriad doubts

Justice: Few Iraqis understand the American legal process as military trials begin in the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.

May 19, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - It was the first of several attempts by the U.S. military to tell Iraqi journalists about the courts-martial scheduled to begin today, but the seminar did not go well.

Two of the six Iraqis who showed up for the session walked out when the military lawyer refused to discuss details of the case against Spc. Jeremy C. Sivits, who is accused of taking at least one photograph of fellow American soldiers mistreating Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison.

Two more Iraqis left after learning that the maximum penalty that Sivits faces is expulsion from the Army and one year in jail. The disorder at the seminar hinted at the growing lack of trust between Iraqis and American officials

"It is difficult," said Col. Jill Morgenthaler, an Army spokeswoman overseeing public access to the series of courts-martial that begin today. "This is judicial theory 101."

It is not lost on Army officials that their first chance to demonstrate the American judicial system to Iraqis is by trying an American for abuses against Iraqis.

"It's not a happy event," Morgenthaler said. "But in one sense this is very good, in that we can show that we have nothing to hide and show the Iraqis how a fair and impartial justice system works."

But Iraqi law students, professors and people interviewed at random on a busy street seem to share a lack of understanding about the American legal system, including the fundamentals of a jury. That lack of knowledge could create unreasonable expectations among Iraqis about the proceedings, leaving people unsatisfied regardless of the outcome.

Certain aspects of the Sivits case might make matters worse. If, as expected, Sivits pleads guilty, the promised court-martial won't seem like a trial at all. There might not be testimony from the former Iraqi prisoners, and there might be no jury. The proceedings could be over in less than an hour.

And Sivits' plea, in return for his testimony against six other soldiers charged, could bolster an argument that the abuses were merely the product of out-of-control revelry rather than part of an effort to "soften up" prisoners for interrogation as many of the accused contend.

Iraqis are eager for top U.S. officials to be held accountable, and they don't understand why Iraqi judges cannot participate in a trial involving crimes committed in Iraq against Iraqis.

"This is a trial going by American laws and American rules," said Aziz al-Kafaji, a criminal law professor at Baghdad University. "Why can't it be done by Iraqi judges and according to Iraqi law? There is no trust in the Americans."

Kafaji said ordinary Iraqis have no concept of what is about to unfold today, and he said he worries that a plea bargain will only increase the mistrust, because it could appear that the first soldier to be court-martialed escaped virtually unscathed.

"In my opinion, this trial does not concern the Iraqi people at all," Kafaji said, sitting in his office and preparing final exams. "Whether there is a trial or not, the most important thing is that the abuse stops."

A half-dozen people interviewed on a downtown street were nearly unanimous in their opinions.

"The soldiers should be killed, according to Islamic law," said Ali Hussein, a 25-year-old truck driver. "A trial doesn't mean much of anything. This is much bigger than a trial. This is about how we are treated as a people and how the Americans act toward others."

"Who will try them, Americans or Iraqis?" asked Fatima Ali, a 30-year- old housewife. She frowned when she learned the answer. "Their punishment should be as severe as their crime," she said. "There will be no justice here. Only God can give them what they deserve."

Only a handful will be able to watch the military trial. It will not be televised, and no recording will be allowed. There are about 70 seats in the courtroom, with 34 designated for reporters, including eight from the Arab press.

The Iraqi ministers of justice and the interior are invited, and there is space for family members of the accused and the victims. There was debate yesterday as to what would happen if an Iraqi simply showed up and wanted to watch. Some officials said he could be accommodated; others said absolutely not.

The court-martial will be held in Conference Room No. 2 at the fortified Baghdad Convention Center. The building is wired for television cameras and can accommodate hundreds of reporters, most of whom will watch the proceedings on closed-circuit television. It is the Army's hope that local journalists and invited Iraqi dignitaries will spread the word that justice is being done.

"It is open in the sense it is open to the media," Morgenthaler said.

But the Iraqi news media do not fully understand the process. The seminars intended to help them learn about the court-martial system left them even more confused.

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