Iraq: Lawyers killed for defending cases "against Islam"

Defending the rule of law and women's rights is costing some Iraqi lawyers their lives. Since October 2005, 38 lawyers have been murdered and hundreds attacked for defending cases which their enemies say are "against Islam".
Salah Abdel-Kader, 56, a well-known lawyer and professor in the capital who had handled cases of honour killings and custody battles, was shot dead in his office on 29 July. A note found near his body said, "This is the price to pay for those who do not follow Islamic laws and defend what is dreadful and dirty."
He had been threatened many times this year, said his widow, Suheiyla Muhammad. "He was a brave man and always defended what he believed was correct under the law," she said. "Unfortunately some families cannot accept it... He was a victim because he cared about legal processes."

Lawyers who have been attacked had handled cases that challenge Iraqi traditions or certain interpretations of Islam.

Cases involving inheritance and the division of assets in a divorce have also led to violent attacks on lawyers.

In Iraq, as in some other countries in the region, women who are accused of having sexual relationships outside of marriage are sometimes killed by their husbands or their own family members, who say they are defending the honour of the family.

Although honour killings have been practiced in countries around the globe and predate Islam by centuries, some killers say their actions are justified by Islamic law. According to Islamic law, adultery is a crime punishable by death, but only if four male witnesses testify that the act occurred. With such a heavy burden of proof, most Muslim countries do not enforce the death penalty in adultery cases.

"Most lawyers in Iraq today are worried about taking on such cases because they have to evaluate how much they will affect their safety," said Safa'a Farouk, a lawyer and spokesperson for the ILA who has already received six threats since February.

Because there are fewer lawyers willing to take on these cases, it can cause delays in the justice system "in a country already so greatly affected by the lack of justice for women and poor people", Farouk said. People requesting a lawyer from the ILA often have to wait more than a month to get a referral, he said.

Lawyers fleeing

"Since January, at least 120 lawyers have left Iraq to Jordan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and other countries, frightened by the constant threats. And since the US-led invasion in 2003, hundreds of others have already left," said Qusay Ahmed, 44, an Iraqi lawyer and member of the ILA.

"We are afraid and terrified by such killings, and many of my colleagues have stopped accepting such cases - even if it could bring good money - because our lives could be in serious risk," he said.

Farouk said that the ILA cannot force lawyers to accept cases. "They are trying to protect themselves and their families from those people and gangs who feel safe due to the lawlessness in Iraq," he said.

Custody battles led to the death of Ali al-Nassiri, 51, another Baghdad lawyer who specialised in divorce cases. Al-Nassiri was killed by a bomb that exploded in front of his house two months ago.

Al-Nassiri had won four cases for women who wanted custody of their children. The relatives of the fathers who lost threatened to kill him for "working against the Islamic laws that give the fathers the right to look after their children after a divorce", his brother, Hussein al-Nassiri, said.

Interpretation of custody rights varies widely among judges in Islamic countries. However it is common for women to always have custody of younger children, and for custody to revert to the father at a later point.

Traditionally in Iraq, fathers are granted custody in most cases, but pressure from women's rights activists has begun to change that.

Sheikh Ahmed Damalugi of the Rahman mosque in Baghdad, who is a member of the Islamic Commission for Peace in Iraq, said that killing someone for your own reasons is wrong.

"I do not agree that adultery or losing virginity [in an unlawful way] are acceptable, but murder will not bring back honour, but just leave it [the original offence] remembered for a longer time," Damalugi said. "Killing lawyers for defending cases will only degrade justice."

17 August 2006