Thursday, June 26, 2008

Hammurabi Smiles

This press release from the Multi-National Force-Iraq site, reports that Iraqi courts tried and convicted two Iraqi individuals for crimes against the State (possession of illegal weapons). For Americans, the rule of law is more ground than figure; we threaten to sue, demand justice for crimes and misdemeanors, and try to get out of jury duty with little more reflection than we devote to parsing nitrogen from oxygen. This report is not likely to strike many of us as such a big deal.

But in Iraq, it is a very big deal. This is not to say that the offenses themselves were such big news (though the second guy did have rather a formidable cache of weapons, the seizure of which likely delayed a fair number of funerals) . Rather, what stands out is the fact that these individuals were not executed on the spot. They were not tortured, or thrown summarily into a windowless pit. They were captured, held, had their day in court, were given the chance to present evidence, and were duly convicted and sentenced.

The judicial system under Saddam's Baathist regime was anything but independent or, by Western standards, just. Political prisoners abounded, and had no recourse if they piqued the ire of the regime or its friends. Juries were non-existent, and judges had outrageously wide discretion. Saddam was the law, and woe betide those who tripped his radar.

Now, however, even terrorists caught red-handed (all-but literally!) can expect to stand before a judge who is not merely a dictator's puppet. Faith in an independent judiciary is one of the most fundamental underpinnings of a functional civil society, the firewall against the militias and vigilante 'justice' of a failed state. For Iraq to continue in its evolution into a functional Republic which represents the interests of its people fairly and evenhandedly, the further development of this institution is absolutely crucial. I have been looking out for stories such as this, and it is gratifying in the extreme to start finding them, especially after the shameful debacle which was the trial and execution of Saddam himself.

Does Iraq still have a long row to hoe? Surely. But in the land which saw one of the first codified systems of laws, it is very heartening to see progress on this front. One of the most important 'benchmarks' for Iraq may be found seated behind the bench.

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