Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Keeping Faith With Tribal Justice

Many Iraqis have more trust in their tribal elders than the country’s judges.
By Hemin Baqir

Sitting on a high bench before a crowd of visitors at his home, 60-year-old Sarhad Khalifa looks like a judge.

But though his rulings have no legal backing, as head of the Rughzayee clan of the Jaff tribe - the largest in Iraqi Kurdistan, with almost three million members - Khalifa’s decision sometimes holds more weight than that of a formal court.

Because Iraq is a largely tribal society, people mainly rely on community leaders to resolve disputes instead of going to court – all the more so now since the government is seen as failing to establish the rule of law.

“The government can’t solve problems,” said Khalifa. “There has been no law and order in this country for a long time.”

Khalifa receives visitors seeking his wisdom on a daily basis. His rulings are based on his tribe’s values of forgiveness and compensation. Sometimes, Khalifa even provides the latter, although he will not say how much, as discussing such things is against tribal code.

“Khalifa solves problems quickly and does not let them turn into bigger disputes,” said 49-year-old farmer Omer Hama-amin. “That’s why people turn to him.”

For example, Khalifa cites one case brought to him in which a man and a woman had had sex out of wedlock – illegal in tribal society, with those involved often threatened by honour killings in which their own relatives murder them to expunge the shame brought upon their respective families.

Khalifa resolved the case by arranging marriages between the couple - sending them to another area to live far away from relatives - and the sister of the man and a brother of the woman.

Osman Qadir, head of the Sulaimaniyah court, said tribal court decisions are not legally binding and can undermine the rights of people involved. “ I deem these solution as bad deeds,” said Qadir.

But Khalifa said few dare to challenge a tribal court decision, “If someone does not agree with a ruling, he will be dismissed from the tribe.”

Majeed Ahmed turned to Zangna tribal justice after a formal court could not resolve his family problems. His sister and his wife’s brother had married but wanted to separate after five years together. As a result, Ahmed’s wife’s family said that she should also go back to them. But Ahmed and his wife refused, but then her family rejected the court’s decision to annul the marriage of his sister and brother-in-law without affecting their marriage.

The issue was resolved by a tribal judge, who decided that Ahmed’s marriage would remain intact if he paid substantial compensation to his wife’s family.

Criminologist Jwan Ihsan Fawzi said that it will take time for Iraqis to accept state courts as institutions that can provide solutions to their problems. “The affiliation to tribes and respect for tribal chiefs are still extremely strong,” she said.

Hemin Baqir is an IWPR trainee in Sulaimaniyah.

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