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.
American officials, however, said evidence had emerged that one of the trial judges had promised to find the defendants not guilty and that a senior judge had ordered him to be replaced.
Witness intimidation has been one of the most significant concerns in the trial.
Many of the witnesses agreed to testify only because they believed their names would be kept secret, but their names were leaked and supporters of the former Health Ministry officials threatened to kill them or their families if they didn't recant their testimony, American officials said. Many of the witnesses did not show up at the trial, though Iraqi law allows their testimony to be read if they do not attend.
One witness who did appear on Monday, Nazar Mehdi Abdul Rasul, the Health Ministry's chief legal representative, contradicted his sworn testimony in October that he witnessed an old man begging Zamili to help secure the release of the man's kidnapped brother.
"I heard Hakim Zamili call the kidnappers on his cellphone and ask them to release the brother of this old man," Rasul testified in October. "And after a long pleading I heard Zamili saying, 'Don't kill him, just throw him on Canal Street.' "
But on Monday, Rasul, who trembled and kept glancing at Zamili, said Zamili was a pious man and competent administrator. Rasul said he had misspoken during his earlier testimony because he was weak from fasting for Ramadan. The angered chief judge chastised Rasul and said he could submit his testimony in writing if he feared speaking in the courtroom.
Attorneys for the defendants called a number of witnesses, many Sadrists and current employees of the ministry, who defended Zamili and Shamari and suggested that others were behind the kidnappings and killings. But the judge also read the testimony of witnesses who accused Zamili and Shamari of being sectarian killers.
At the end of a long day Monday, the prosecutor got up and read what Americans described as a long statement. "The evidence against Hakim and Hamid is not enough to convict them. I ask to drop these charges and release them right away unless they are wanted for another case," said the prosecutor, whose name was not released as a security precaution.
"The bottom line is that we're reserving judgment on the Iraqi court's decision today," said Nantongo, the U.S. Embassy spokeswoman. "We remain concerned about this case."
A U.S. official said Zamili and Shamari are likely to be freed within 24 hours. Preparations were being made to tighten security for witnesses who testified against them.
Also Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wrapped up a historic two-day visit to Iraq by calling on U.S. forces to leave the country.
"They should leave this area, and they should hand over the running of affairs to the government and the people of this region," he said. "The people in the region despise them and don't welcome them. None of the people in the region love those forces."
Despite tightened security measures that shut down much of Baghdad, two suicide bombers staged separate attacks that killed at least 18 people and wounded 23 others, Iraqi officials said.