Trial Of 2 Ex-Officials In Iraq Is Delayed As Witnesses Fail To Show

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
New York Times
February 20, 2008 By Alissa J. Rubin
BAGHDAD — The trial of two former government officials widely seen as a test of the impartiality of Iraq’s judicial system got off to an inauspicious start on Tuesday when it was delayed because crucial witnesses failed to appear.
The absence of the witnesses was the latest in a series of events that appear aimed at derailing the case, in which the officials are charged with using the resources of the Health Ministry to carry out a campaign of sectarian kidnappings and killings.
Witnesses have been intimidated; their families have been threatened; and information emerged this week suggesting that the trial’s outcome was fixed. One of the judges scheduled to hear the case had reportedly already agreed to find the men not guilty, according to officials close to the court.
Still, the court has moved methodically forward, seemingly without government interference, despite the politically charged atmosphere around the case.
When the information about the trial judge was reported to the judicial authorities in the last few days, a senior judge removed him, the officials said.
The case, which will resume on March 2, is being closely watched because it would be the first full-blown trial of high-ranking Shiite officials for sectarian crimes, including murder and kidnapping, which carry the death penalty. Sunnis especially see it as a measure of the Shiite-dominated government’s ability to deliver impartial justice.
The defendants, former Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili and Brig. Gen. Hameed al-Shammari, who led the ministry’s security service, are charged with running militias that killed and kidnapped hundreds of Sunnis in hospitals run by the Health Ministry and other facilities in 2005 and 2006. They will be tried for a handful of murders and kidnappings under the 2005 antiterrorism statute, which prohibits sectarian violence.
“The most important thing here is that law should be above everybody: it should be separate from the sectarianism and partisanship that hurt all Iraqis deeply,” said Omar Abdul Sattar, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni party in Parliament.
“It will be really significant if this trial is held according to the law and if everybody gets his fair punishment,” he said. “People don’t want more bloodshed. They want a real law that covers everybody equally.”
For the Iraqi government, the trial is particularly delicate because during the period in question, the government relied on support from the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia was involved in death squad operations. The two men accused in the case are said to have used a militia connected to him in their crimes.
The government, however, has been quietly supportive of the trial, allowing it to go forward despite having the power to block it.
The government has allocated $80 million for an ultra-secure Rule of Law complex, which gives judges and others involved in some felony and corruption cases, including this one, a safe place to live, largely insulated from threats and violence.
The defendants say they are not guilty, according to one of their lawyers, Abu Firas al-Mutairi. He said Mr. Zamili was a “devout man, and it is impossible for a Muslim to kill a Muslim.”
“I would not defend him if I had even a faint thread of suspicion, because this is about the reputation of a movement,” he said, referring to Mr. Sadr’s movement.
The Health Ministry at the time was controlled by people loyal to Mr. Sadr. At about the time the two men were arrested, in February and March of 2007, the government was distancing itself from Mr. Sadr. His ministers withdrew from the government shortly after the arrests, making it somewhat easier for the trial to proceed.
However, Mr. Sadr’s movement remains a formidable force both politically and on the street, and many Sadrists agree with Mr. Mutairi, the defense lawyer, that the effort to put Mr. Zamili on trial is an effort to tarnish the entire movement.
“It is a political charge, criminally framed,” Mr. Mutairi said. “It is motivated by all the parties that abhor the Sadr movement, starting with the occupation forces.”
Of the nine major prosecution witnesses, seven have been intimidated, by means including by death threats, said a United States Army judge advocate general who is advising Iraqi judicial officials.
About half were issued American visas for themselves and their families for their safety, said another official close to the court. The chief investigative judge was moved for his own safety and that of his family.
Evidence in the case, in the Central Criminal Court, is expected to show that the resources of the Health Ministry were co-opted to carry out sectarian kidnappings and killings and to enrich a small group of people.
People close to the ministry or working in ministry-run hospitals during that period paint a frightening portrait of ambulances being used to ferry weapons as well as kidnapping victims; patients being pulled out of their beds or being refused treatment because of their sect; and facilities being used to torture and detain people.
Munthir al-Mahdawi recounted the last day he saw his brother, the Diyala Province health director, Ali al-Mahdawi, providing a chilling sketch of how the militias operated.
Ali al-Mahdawi, a Sunni, had been nominated for the post of deputy health minister by the Iraqi Islamic Party. On June 12, 2006, he, his brother and three bodyguards made the trip to Baghdad. Ali al-Mahdawi and the bodyguards went into the ministry and were never seen again.
Mr. Mahdawi said he had given testimony in the case and had not been threatened but that three other people who were with him that day were asked to come to a police station associated with Mr. Sadr’s militia. Instead, the three went into hiding.
“My brother wasn’t a sectarian man,” Mr. Mahdawi said. “There were only five Sunnis in the hospital he runs, and the rest of the staff were all Shiites. He didn’t allow anyone in the hospital to speak in a sectarian way.
“The only thing I hope for in this trial is to have justice done.”
Ahmad Fadam and Khalid Ansary contributed reporting.