Working to Rebuild Trust in Iraq's Court System

President Bush said at a White House news conference Wednesday that Iraqi officials were making significant strides in establishing an independent, functioning democracy. U.S. Army Capt. Phillip Carter is working with authorities in Baqubah, the Iraqi city where al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was recently killed, to make the legal system more fair and transparent. He talks about the challenges of rebuilding trust in Iraqi courts with Madeleine Brand.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

In Iraq, a security crackdown is underway. It may land more people in the country's already overcrowded jails. Those jails are part of an experiment the U.S. military is conducting, an experiment that the Americans hope will change the Iraqi legal system.

We read about it in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. The story detailed the efforts of one man, an Army captain, working to make the Iraqi justice system more just.

Captain Phillip Carter is a lawyer in civilian life. We've spoken to him many times on this program. The last time, we spoke about his work with Iraqi police officers.

Captain PHILLIP CARTER (U.S. Army): Our work with the police made us see that there was a gap in the police's capabilities and that they weren't really an effective part of the Iraqi legal system. We found lots of cases where prisoners who were in jail, where there may not be charges or a judicial order; and people were languishing in jail for months or years on end as a result.

So, we started pulling on strings and following up on some cases in the jail. One thing led to another and pretty soon we had a detainee working group initiative started where we were looking at all the cases in the jail as a way of checking on the police's performance and helping them improve.

BRAND: Now, you have a strategy that's changed since a year ago - or the military has a new strategy - with regards to the Iraqi legal system in that, as I understand it, you don't just go in and say this is wrong, change it and change it now. You're trying to get them to do it on their own.

Capt. CARTER: That's right. Whatever solutions we help the Iraqis come up with need to be capable of enduring after we leave. And so the big push now is not to tell them what to do, but to advise them and help them arrive at Iraqi solutions that they can embrace and take some pride of ownership in.

We really thought we were the most successful in the last few months when the governing council of the Diyala Province started its own detainee working group initiative, sort of indicating our efforts but also taking them to the next level. And we thought that that was really a home run.

BRAND: Well, give us an example with a specific prisoner that you handle differently now.

Capt. CARTER: There's one prisoner, in particular, who is sort of like a head trustee there, whose case we've taken on. And rather than simply telling the courts to release him because we see certain documents that indicate he should be released, instead we've gone around to the prosecutor and the felony court judge and the chief judge and we've lobbied them to look at the case and to come to their own conclusions and to work with each other to resolve the case and arrive at the outcome that they think is right.

And where they deviate from Iraqi law, we try to correct and advise them. But this all happens behind closed doors. And the goal is to really push them to arrive at the outcome that they would choose as according to Iraqi law, not because the U.S. is telling them to.

BRAND: And what if they come to a different conclusion?

Capt. CARTER: That's the inherent risk of doing this. The Iraqis are a sovereign nation and they often times do what we might not want. One unintended consequence of this is that the Iraqi jail has not released the prisoners that we've been asking about. But they've released a bunch of others because our questioning on these first cases has led them to question all of the other ones that we haven't been looking at.

There's been sort of a very indirect effect of our efforts. I think, overall, we've seen an improvement in the process and the system since we started this.

BRAND: There have been reports of abuse and torture of prisoners in Iraqi jails. Do you see that?

Capt. CARTER: Yes, and unfortunately that is the dark side of the rule of law, that we must police some of the worst abuses that we see and use those as teaching examples of what not to do; because, you know, where there is no rule of law, there is the rule of force, and this country has known that for far too long.

BRAND: You graduated from law school recently, just before you went to Iraq. And I'm wondering what legal lessons you, yourself, have learned working in Iraq.

Capt. CARTER: Yeah, it's a little wild that I could be advising a provincial chief judge and only be two years out of law school. But I think what it's really taught me is that the law is much more than what's written down and much more than what's on the books - material about people. The biggest successes we've had are when we're able to get judges and police officers and prosecutors to be able to talk to one another and to work together as a system. And that's something that this country hasn't seen very much in the last three years and perhaps in the last three decades under Saddam.

BRAND: That's Army Captain Phillip Carter speaking to us from Baqubah, Iraq.

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