Case Is Dropped Against Shiites In Sunni Deaths

By Amit R. Paley and Zaid Sabah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

BAGHDAD, March 3 -- Two former high-ranking Shiite government officials charged with kidnapping and killing scores of Sunnis were ordered released Monday after prosecutors dropped the case. The abrupt move renewed concerns about the willingness of Iraq's leaders to act against sectarianism and cast doubts on U.S. efforts to build an independent judiciary.

The collapse of the trial stunned American and Iraqi officials who had spent more than a year assembling the case, which they said included a wide array of evidence.

"This shows that the judicial system in Iraq is horribly broken," said a U.S. legal adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly. "And it sends a terrible signal: If you are Shia, then no worries; you can do whatever you want and nothing is going to happen to you."

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's decision to allow the case to proceed to trial was considered a significant step toward proving his Shiite-led government could hold Shiite officials accountable for sectarian crimes. The case was heard at the multimillion-dollar Rule of Law Complex, protected and supervised by the United States, which has said that the development of an impartial justice system is essential to Iraq's long-term stability.

On Monday a three-judge panel ordered the former Health Ministry officials released after a prosecutor unexpectedly asked that the charges be dismissed for lack of evidence. The request caught U.S. officials off guard and came on the second day of what was expected to be at least a four-day trial; evidence had been presented completely on only some of the allegations against the defendants.

The trial of Hakim al-Zamili, a former deputy health minister, and Brig. Gen. Hamid Hamza Alwan Abbas al-Shamari, who led the agency's security force, was the most public airing of evidence that Baghdad hospitals had become death zones for Sunnis seeking treatment there. The officials, followers of anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the feared Mahdi Army militia, were accused of organizing and supporting the murder of Sunni doctors; the use of ambulances to transfer weapons for Shiite militia members; and the torture and kidnapping of Sunni patients.

Zamili and Shamari said they were innocent and unaware of the ministry being used for crimes against Sunnis. Their attorneys accused the government and American officials of trying to lead a campaign against the Sadrist movement. Sadr has been both a key supporter and a critic of Maliki's government; the cleric has recently won praise from U.S. officials for continuing to order his militia to refrain from violence.

Zamili, 43, of Sadr City in Baghdad, and Shamari, 49, of the capital's Baladiyat district, were taken into custody by the U.S. military last February.

"The very fact that the charges were heard and investigated does show modest progress toward the rule of law," said Mirembe Nantongo, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

But the case hit roadblocks immediately. The trial court sent it back at least three times to the investigative court, asking for more information, according to American officials, who said the unusual requests were unnecessary and dangerous to carry out.

"The fact that the trial panel would find what we did insufficient was a great disappointment," Michael F. Walther, a Justice Department official who advised the Iraqi legal system, said in December. "I do think that they may have applied a different standard of proof than they would have for an ordinary criminal."

Eventually the panel announced that the trial would begin on Feb. 19, but three hours after it was scheduled to begin, a spokesman for the Iraqi court system, Judge Abdul Satar Ghafur al-Bayrkdar, said the case would be delayed until March 2 because witnesses had failed to appear.

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