Iraqi Bar Association strives to evade political crossfire

Sabah Bayati came to London last month with two aims. The treasurer of the Iraqi Bar Association was on a fact-finding mission to look at how the legal process works in the UK, but more importantly he wants to bring the plight of Iraq and its lawyers to the attention of the international community.

The issues facing the legal profession in Iraq cannot be separated from the country’s political situation. When asked if he is able to practise, Bayati says he is, but the situation in Baghdad makes it difficult.

As first reported by The Lawyer (23 January), the Iraqi Minister of Justice Abdel Hussein Shandal has called for the Bar Association’s board to be dissolved and has appointed three judges and two lawyers to oversee the organisation.

The move has angered Bayati and the rest of the board. Although he is speaking through an interpreter, you can sense his frustration.

“It is an interference of one’s civil rights,” said Bayati. “We’re not part of the government. The constitution doesn’t allow such interference.”

He continued: “The High Court issued a decision that essentially says this is an unacceptable decision by the minister and that it’s beyond his authority; but the minister is insistent.”

When it is suggested that the Iraqi government only took this action because it was concerned that members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party were on the board, Bayati is adamant this is not the case.

“There were members [of the board] who were members of the party but who left [the party] in the 1990s. We have affidavits from the members of the board that state that they left the party in the 1990s,” he insisted.

There are 22,000 members of the Iraqi Bar Association and all lawyers in Iraq must be a member if they want to practise. So far the Bar Association has managed to keep the government-appointed overseers away from their meetings and is planning to go ahead with its forthcoming elections in April.

However, this is not the first time the ruling forces in Iraq have tried to interfere with the Bar Association. Back in 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) demanded that the board hold new elections and even brought tanks to bear on the Bar Association’s offices.

Bayati’s fear over this latest move is that the sectarianism that has divided Iraq will infiltrate the Iraqi Bar Association.

“We’re trying to avoid sectarianism and maintain unity as a group of lawyers. We’re worried about the religious parties, as there are political parties who want to control the Bar Association,” he said.

Bayati believes that some of the parties have representatives in the Iraqi Bar Association, but when asked if he could expel them, he shrugged. “We will respect them,” he replies. “What choice do we have? That’s democracy isn’t it?”
For the treasurer, all these events are symptoms of the deep wounds that multiple wars and conflicts have caused in Iraq.

“The ultimate thing we need is a healing process in Iraq. This is critical. We’ve had 50 years of bloodshed. We can’t afford any more. The world should lobby the Iraqi government for this reconciliation process,” argued Bayati passionately.

The Iraqi lawyer has been promoting the idea of a reconciliation process during his time in the UK, as well as giving talks to lawyers and parliamentarians. He has also been talking to UK lawyers about the market over here.

Bayati is keen to talk, but there are some topics he refuses to comment on. The trial of Saddam Hussein is one of those. “It’s a political issue which I won’t get involved with,” he states firmly.

The CPA set up the trial and human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch have expressed concerns. In 2003 it wrote: “We have significant concerns about the lack of consultation in the drafting of this law. No transparent process for eliciting comments or expertise was established.

“There are also important questions concerning the legitimacy under international law of establishing a domestic tribunal like this during an occupation. Significant issues may arise as to whether the justice delivered under the present circumstances will be seen to be fair. We also have concerns… about moving forward with a tribunal located in Iraq under the current security situation.”

Despite the problems (which also prevent Bayati from having his photograph taken for this article), he is keen to see his country fulfil its potential.

Bayati concluded: “We have over 2,000 years of history and I think that, with a reconciliation process, this country will reach the heights of democratic success and prosperity.”