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

Peer Judgement

Traditional courts offer a non-violent route for pursuing claims against Saddam’s henchmen.
By Dhiya Rasan

Ali Shajab al-Majedi, from the southern town of Amara, is one of many Iraqis who has an old score to settle.


Seventeen years ago, as a youth trying to dodge military service, Majedi was spotted in the street near his home by local Baathist Jasim Jawad al-Zubaidi.


He managed to run away, but not before Zubaidi shot and wounded him in the thigh.


After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, thousands of men like Majedi are turning the tables on former security or Baath party officials who wronged them.


Relatives of victims have killed an untold number of Baathists, particularly in the south, where tribal traditions of vendetta are especially strong.


While tribal rules tend to sanction blood vengeance in the case of murder, the comparatively minor injury done to Majedi did not call for such drastic retribution.


Instead, Majedi took Zubaidi to an informal court organised by local tribes as an alternative to violence.


”I sent a notice to him, telling him to appear before my tribe to be judged for the misdeed he did against me, and to pay the required compensation. He told his tribe, and an appointment was made for a session of an arbitration council,” Majedi said.


Zubaidi said he had no choice but to comply, “I was told that Majedi wanted to judge me according to tribal law, because I was accused of shooting him some years ago. I did not expect this. I didn’t remember much about the case.”


The accused man consulted relatives about how to respond to the charge. “I was advised that I should negotiate, and I fixed an appointment for tribal judgment,” he said.


“I complied – if I hadn’t, the other tribe would have considered it an insult. The problem would have become complicated, to the extent that they might have killed me.”


Under a judgment delivered last October, Zubaidi was required to apologise and pay 350,000 dinars, about 320 US dollars, in compensation.


Even though he claimed to have been acting under orders from the regime, the tribunal held him personally responsible for the injury done to Majedi.


“The incident was ruled to be an intentional shooting,” said Saad Abid Allah al-Majedi, an elder from the victim’s tribe who sat on the arbitration council. “No one can use the excuse that he was working for the government and had to obey its orders. Nor was the fact that the incident was an old one taken into consideration.”


Sheikh Saher Muwayed al-Khalifa, who also sat on the tribunal, believes the system of arbitration provides a consensual, fair way of defusing potentially violent disputes, “This approach satisfies all the tribes. It prevents bloodshed, and prevents [further] disagreements.”


In addition to Baathists, former policemen also have been judged by tribal councils.


Former officer Issam Abid al-Zahra, also from Amara, was brought before a council of the al-Bugannam tribe to answer for the arrest of Hashim Jawad Said, picked up in 1998 on suspicion of being an activist in the then banned Dawa party.


”I was imprisoned for three months because of Issam, and I had to pay a bribe of one million and half dinars to be set free. He is required to compensate me for my suffering,” explained Said.


The tribal council made the policeman pay two million dinars in damages.


Once again, the tribunal ruled that acting on orders was no defence.


“I told them that I was a government employee, and I said I was not responsible either for the Said’s arrest or for receiving any bribe. But they insisted that I should be judged by tribal law. I could not get them to drop the matter,” said Zahra.


Although such traditional courts are widely accepted by local tribes, some policemen argue that it will deter their colleagues from enforcing the law in the post-Saddam era.


“Tribal councils that judge Baathists and former policemen may frighten police who are working today, doing their duty to provide security in Iraqi streets,” said Amara police officer Khudheir Shair al-Kaabi.


Dhiya Rasan is a trainee journalist with IWPR in Baghdad.


More IWPR's Global Voices

Why Did Cuba Jail This Journalist?
Rights defenders say that unusually harsh punishment reflects wider troubles for Havana regime.
Under A Watchful Eye: Cyber Surveillance in Cuba
Cuba's Less Than Beautiful Game