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IRAQ: For judges, danger and nowhere to call home

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There's a case that haunts Judge Jaffar Mohsin. It was in 2005, and Mohsin was presiding over the case of a man convicted of terrorism charges for killing an Iraqi police officer. Police are frequent targets of attack here, but the convict's description of the way he tortured his victim before death made this case different: he used his fingers to gouge one of the policeman's eyes out.

Then he went for the other eye, but he couldn't dig it out, Mohsin said, twisting his own fingers around to duplicate what might have been the killer's motions. So he got a rusty razor and used it on the other eye. Then, he killed the policeman.

"Didn't he deserve death?" Mohsin said of the murderer as he walked down a marble-floored spiral  staircase in eastern Baghdad's brand-new courthouse, where finishing touches still are being applied to the gardens, offices, hallways and foyers. Mohsin sentenced the man to hang, one of at least 71 death sentences he says he has imposed since 2003. He notes that after the fall of Saddam Hussein, he became the first judge to impose the death penalty on people convicted of terrorism.

That is one reason Mohsin never goes anywhere without an armed posse, not even out of his office to walk down the courthouse halls. Since 2003, Mohsin said, at least 37 Iraqi judges have been killed, including two in Baghdad since May 29. "We stand up against terrorism and criminality. Do you think people we sentence are happy? Do you think their families are happy? Of course not," Mohsin said. "But this is the nature of our work," he said of the threat level. "We cope with it."

The most recent judge slain was Mohsin's predecessor as the chief of the appellate court in Rusafa, one of Baghdad's two main courts. He was Judge Kamil Showaili, gunned down in Baghdad on June 26 while driving home. On May 29, another Baghdad judge was shot in a similar drive-by attack. He died June 1.

Four days after Showaili's shooting, five Iraqi judges escaped assassination attempts in what Iraqi security officials believe was part of a campaign by Shiite Muslim extremists to eliminate those hearing cases involving suspected Shiite militiamen. 

Scores of judges have survived attempted killings, the latest coming Monday in Tuz Khurmato, about 100 miles north of Baghdad. Judge Abdul Ameer Mehdi survived when a car bomb went off as his convoy passed, but three of his security guards were injured.

After Showaili's killing, Mohsin was moved to Baghdad from Wasit province, south of the capital, to fill the spot. Like most judges in the capital, he moved into an apartment complex inside the Rusafa Rule of Law Complex, the fortified area also housing the courthouse, legal offices and some detention facilities. The U.S. military set up the complex in early 2007 as a means of providing judges a safe place to live and work, and of getting Iraq's justice system up and running.

But the contract to provide security in the judges' living quarters ends at the end of 2008, and the Iraqi government has not made clear if it will foot the bill to renew it. So Mohsin is considering alternatives, which at this point seem limited to a single room inside the new courthouse.Courtblog3 

"If I'm not allocated a safe or good enough residence, I'll have to stay here, where it's safer," said Mohsin, who has been a judge in Iraq for 22 years.

The courthouse, where empty packing boxes and furniture still covered in plastic wrap attest to the building's newness, is a novelty in Iraq because it includes a secure facility for witnesses. Threats against witnesses have derailed several trials in Iraq. The new structure will have living quarters for about 150 witnesses, and an enclosed corridor will let them move between their quarters and the courthouse without going outside. Money for the project, which cost nearly $11 million, came out of the roughly $21-billion Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund approved by Congress after the U.S. invasion.

Construction was delayed by security problems, especially last spring when curfews and violence resulting from Iraqi-U.S. battles against Shiite militiamen made it impossible for most of the Iraqi laborers to get to work. Now that it's open, the finishing touches are being applied: flower beds, desks and comfortable chairs for people seated beneath the chandelier hanging from the orange domed ceiling of the main foyer.

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It's nice, but what Mohsin really wants is training for Iraqi police to handle the kinds of crimes he says the war has ushered in: bombs, kidnappings, terrorism. Too often, he says, evidence is destroyed by law enforcement officers who don't know how easily a case can be derailed by someone moving an object or simply touching it. He estimates that 70% of cases end up being thrown out of court because of insufficient evidence.

But Mohsin said he'll remain a judge, despite the frustrations, the long hours and the danger. "I want to serve the law here," he said. "Even if I have to live in my office. It's a matter of principal."

-- Tina Susman and Said Rifai in Baghdad

-- Photos: Judge Jaffar Mohsin of Baghdad's Rusafa appellate court, in the office he may soon call home; workers plant flower beds at the Rusafa courthouse; the chandelier in the main foyer. Credit: Tina Susman

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, as well as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can subscribe by logging in at the website here, clicking on the box for "L.A. Times updates," and then clicking on the "World: Mideast" box.

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