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Iraq: witness intimidation & changed testimonies

Witness intimidation, changed testimonies the order of the day in Iraq's Justice System

by Ali Al-Saffar

On Sunday the 2nd of March the trial of Hakim al Zamili and Hameed al Shimmari, both accused of 13 accounts of murder, kidnapping, embezzlement and corruption, started. The trial brought with it high hope of change in the country, as it was touted as being proof of the Iraqi Government’s willingness to prosecute all those who break the law regardless of sect or creed. On the 3rd of March, all charges were dropped, much to the dismay of most observers, who noted that while Iraqi courts typically take 3 months to solve minor estate disputes, accusations as serious as those levied against the two defendants were dismissed in a little over one day.

Hakim al Zamili and his co-defendant were arrested on the 8th of February 2007 from the Ministry of Health in the Baab Al Muadham district of Baghdad. The year preceding his shockingly brief trial was spent gathering an extensive case file of evidence against Zamili, with testimonies from various officials in the ministry including Adel Abdullah, the Inspector General in the MoH, as well as former Minister of Health Ali Al-Shimmari, who has since been granted asylum in the US after receiving numerous threats from Sadrist supporters of Zamili. The case, compounded with evidence from the families of many of Zamili’s victims, was seen as being a strong one by the advising Mark Walther, from the US Justice Department. And so with much fanfare, it was announced on the 16th of November 2007 that a trial would be held, prompting the aforementioned Walther to make the following statement:

"This case is as important, if not more important, than the Saddam Hussein case,". He added that a successful trial would demonstrate that the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government "is ready to prosecute its own."

The initial date for the hearing was set for the 19th of February, but was postponed after many of the prosecution witnesses failed to show up to court, citing government inability to secure their safety despite numerous threats on their lives. Also that day, one of the three judges who constitute the panel was dismissed from duty after news of his impartiality being tainted with links to the accused. These unfortunate but flagrant irregularities led to the postponement of the hearing.

The final hearing was fraught with many of the same problems as the previous, with stories of witness intimidation, such as that suffered by Zainab Al-Saffar, sister of Ammar Al-Saffar who was threatened by Zamili the day of his kidnapping, after preparing an extensive report on corruption and terror in the Ministry of Health at the hands of the accused. Zainab Al-Saffar has not returned to her home since her brother was kidnapped from it on the 19th of November 2006, and has received text messages warning her to “Start praying because Judgment Day is close”, should she insist to testify at the trial. Similarly, the widow of Ali al Mahdawi, the director general of health for Diyala who went missing in the Ministry of Health, was threatened and as such, decided not to testify. Perhaps the most telling signs of intimidation came in the accounts of events given by Nazar Mehdi Abul Rasul, who initially testified:

‘I entered the office of Hakim Zamili and I saw an old man begging him and asking him to release his kidnapped brother, and after begging him, Zamili used his mobile to call the kidnappers and told them to release him and leave him on the Canal Road’.

Mr Rasul claimed in court that his vivid portrayal of events were inaccurate, and blamed the inaccuracies on having fasted the day of his testimony, adding:

“He (Zamili) had a personality that we didn’t have in the previous director general for the ministry; he was so firm and so accurate in his work”

Despite there being compelling arguments for a retrial and the pursuit of justice, this is by no means guaranteed. The performance of the court has sullied the name of the Iraqi judiciary, calling into question any possibility of an impartial, apolitical legal process in Iraq.


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