In Ninawa the corridors of the local courthouse are unusually quiet. Lawyers there have been boycotting proceedings there for the past fortnight because of the relocation of a special court where those accused of terrorist acts are trialled. The court has been moved to a military barracks located near the outskirts of the city and local judges have been replaced by others, specially brought in from Baghdad.
The kind of cases that the court, known as the Court for Special Investigations, on the outskirts of Mosul will process had previously been being processed by a court and a special group of judges inside the city. However shortly before the major holiday of Eid Al-Adha, that group and that court had been dissolved by an order from Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council, which administers judicial affairs in the country.
The head of Ninawa’s branch of the Iraqi Bar Association, Iraq\'s lawyers\' union, Nafal al-Taei, said the decision to dissolve the court had taken everyone by surprise because it coincided with the vacation.
“Then the newly formed court was moved from its former position inside Ninawa’s Court of Appeals to a new headquarters near the command centre for the Iraqi Army’s Second Division – this is where the new batch of judges and investigators live,” al-Taei says. “All of this raises doubts about this court’s impartiality.”
There are also other reasons for the Ninawa lawyers’ boycott. There are serious violations of legal proceedings, al-Taei says. One of these is the fact that security officers remain in the room when defendants make their statements. Another involves information given only by anonymous informants as a reason to issue an arrest warrant. Local lawyers have been prevented from finding out who the investigating officer was and there are also suspicions that defendants are being forced to confess before they ever see a lawyer or go to court.
“We have also officially documented an incident where one of the investigators was beating a defendant,” al-Taei says, adding that lawyers in Ninawa have also been threatened by security forces.
And as the boycott by lawyers enters its second week, there are apparently around 3,000 detainees waiting for consultations and trials. Some locals, including some local lawyers, don’t necessarily agree with the boycott, saying that they believe it is a violation of defendants’ rights and that it should not apply to civil cases. Some of the lawyers who are actually not completely convinced about the boycott told NIQASH that they feel obliged to participate in it anyway and they also say that armed men were taking the names of lawyers who did not want to participate in the boycott. It has been impossible to verify this.
Senior sources in the local authority say that Ninawa’s governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi, tried to intervene and after a meeting last week, he promised that the court would be moved again, but this time to a neutral setting.
All of this is coloured by Ninawa’s complex power structure. Various parties all stake a claim to control in the province. On one hand there are Sunni Muslims and local security forces, which includes al-Nujaifi and his followers. Then there are the security forces from the Iraqi Army, which is under the control of the Shiite Muslim-led government in Baghdad. And finally there are also Iraqi Kurdish forces in the province. Last but not least, the province’s capital Mosul is also generally considered to be the base of branches of extremist group, Al Qaeda, in Iraq. And amid a generally insecure and dangerous atmosphere, most of these groups are antagonistic toward one another. The removal of the court from the middle of an area controlled by the local Sunni Muslim administrators to an army base controlled by the Shiite Muslim-led military can be seen in this light too, as can the antipathy between lawyers and security forces.
Despite promises of a breakthrough on this issue, nothing has happened and each party – the security forces and the lawyers – has remained non-negotiable.
Despite requests for an interview or a statement, the Iraqi army has not issued any comment about why the court for terrorist offences was restructured and then relocated.
Local journalist, Nashwan Abdallah, believes that local politicians will intervene sooner rather than later. With elections coming up in Iraq in April 2014, they could use the good publicity a solution will generate, he noted.
This is not the first time that Ninawa’s lawyers have organized a boycott either. However most of the previous ones – against the arrest of lawyers and against attacks on judges – only lasted a day. This one is the longest boycott yet.