Part of the limitations of nation building in Iraq was the failure to prevent intimidation and corruption from seeping into the judicial branch of government. Though the judiciary is supposed to function within a secure environment, Iraq’s judges have been continuously targeted by terrorist groups, criminals, and militia elements, with only modest measures undertaken by the government to provide them protection. But judges are not only the victims; they can be the transgressors as well. Iraqi judges have been accused of corruption, negligence, and politicization. Today, reform of the judicial branch is as formidable a challenge as reforming any aspect of the Iraqi political system, described in some media accounts as a kleptocracy, because of the entrenched interests of a network of politicians, businesspeople, and militias that have intimidated and corrupted it.
Iraq’s judges, similar to other Iraqis, have suffered from the insecurity plaguing the country since 2003. The Iraqi government provides guards to protect the judges (the higher the status, the greater the number of the guards), however the environment remains unsafe for judges. For the first decade after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the killing of judges was mostly conducted by terrorist groups and for sectarian reasons, and few of the perpetrators have been brought to justice. Since then, criminals, such as drug mafias, have more often been targeting judges. Between 2003 and 2019, 74 judges were assassinated. These killings are even more disturbing given the low number of judges in Iraq compared to international standards.
Judges face tremendous pressure either to cave into corruption and misconduct or face threats. In 2014, after failed attempts at bribing a judge, an Iraqi officer threatened a local judge if he did not close his file. In some instances, such threats have been carried out – a judge that specialized in drug-related cases was killed in Maysan in the beginning of 2022. The assassinations have not only been conducted against the judges but have extended to their families. For instance, the son of Midhat al-Mahmoud, the former head of the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council, was killed in 2006. Further, there have been numerous failed assassination attempts.
At the same time, the Iraqi judiciary is under the influence of politicians, militias, and tribal forces. Freedom House described Iraq’s judicial system as “hampered by politicization and corruption” noting that it “takes action on only a fraction of the cases investigated by the Integrity Commission, one of three governmental anticorruption bodies.” The spokesperson for the Supreme Judicial Council admitted that the judiciary often comes under pressure to cease its investigations of politicians for embezzlement and abuse of power. In March 2022, international monitor groups expressed concerns after Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court, on constitutional grounds, invalidated a committee formed by the previous government to combat corruption. There are allegations that the court did so due to pressure by some political parties. Periodically, the judiciary releases statements on initiatives to fight corruption; however, Iraq’s senior politicians are rarely held accountable for corruption, one significant reason that Iraq was ranked 157 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2021 “Corruption Perceptions Index.”
The Iraqi judiciary’s record is not much better in upholding other aspects of the law. It vowed that it would impose harsh punishments against those involved in violence against demonstrators during the widespread protest movement that began in late 2019, however militias believed to be involved in the violence were not held responsible despite evidence cited by Iraqi security sources against them. More broadly, the U.S. Department of State 2020 report on human rights practices in Iraq, in its evaluation of the judicial and legal system, cited numerous issues regarding arrest, detention, trial, and sentencing procedures. A 2018-19 Human Rights Watch study of appeals court decisions in terrorism-related cases found that judges ignored torture allegations, relying on confessions that were extracted by force in nearly two dozen cases in which those claims were taken seriously by the trial courts, highlighting how “gaps in Iraq’s criminal justice system extend to the highest level.”
The judiciary is also accused, according to Iraqi media accounts, of rulings that are politically motivated. In February 2022, the Federal Supreme Court, for instance, ruled against the nomination of Hoshyar Zebari for the presidency because of corruption charges; the ruling prompted Muqtada al-Sadr to come to his defense. The specifics of the case, from the initial 2016 allegations implicating Zebari to corruption allegations that have periodically dogged the forces of Sadr, remain ambiguous and contested. However, the case illustrates how Iraqi courts have sometimes stepped into – or been dragged into – highly politicized cases in which allegations of malfeasance, often of dubious reliability, have been used by political actors to sideline opponents.
Finally, there are allegations that some in the Iraqi judiciary are using their powers to muzzle critics of the judiciary and militias. A court, for example, sentenced a former member of the Iraqi Parliament to more than seven years in prison because he criticized the Supreme Court. Another court, based on a law that was passed when Iraq was under dictatorship in 1969, sentenced a political activist to three years in prison because he criticized the former vice president of the Popular Mobilization Forces. This prompted Human Rights Watch to accuse Iraqi leaders of using the justice system “as a tool to suppress peaceful criticism of the authorities or armed actors.”
The dedicated and impartial judges in Iraq who remain on the bench are under mounting pressure as they are targeted by criminal and shadowy militia networks, while they receive limited support from the government. Simultaneously, the corruptibility and politicization of other judges cause wide-reaching harm. Malpractice by the Iraqi judiciary only increases citizens’ mistrust of the political system, as justice remains scarce in such an insecure environment. The judiciary, reflecting its lack of security and pervasive corruption in all branches of the Iraqi government, has been seriously compromised, acting in effect as a tool in the hands of criminal elements and a political elite intent on maintaining or gaining greater power and unfair access to state resources rather than advancing the rule of law and defending the interests of the public. Iraq’s new government should conduct a serious reappraisal of the judicial system in an effort to strengthen the rule of law and judicial autonomy and security. Given current political and institutional realities in Iraq, however, such an initiative is unlikely.