ARI SHAPIRO, host:
In Iraq, being a judge means being a target. Since the war began five years ago, 35 Iraqi judges and their family members have been killed. On a recent trip to Baghdad, I met one of the judges who have been working in Iraq since before the fall of Saddam. He continues to go to work every day knowing that it could cost him his life.
Tell me how we can describe you.
Unidentified Man: The chief investigation judge in Baghdad.
SHAPIRO: The judge doesn't want to say his name or appear in photographs. Although he speaks English, he's more comfortable talking through a translator.
Unidentified Man: (Through translator) Although I live with my family in the Green Zone - but I have brothers, I have other - parents, father, mother - that they live in the Red Zone.
SHAPIRO: He says anyone connected to him is a potential target for insurgents.
Unidentified Man: (Through translator) So they believe that the justice system is one of the political forces from the Americans, which they don't agree with, they reject. They have their own justice system. Anybody that question their deeds, they think is infidel or is working against them.
SHAPIRO: But he continues to do his job because, he says, rule of law is essential to the future of his country. His daily life involves typical criminal cases. In Iraq, judges conduct investigations. And when the investigation is over, the judge brings charges and the trial begins. This judge described Iraq as a tent and the justice system as the center pole holding the tent up.
We sat with a cup of coffee at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. The building used to be one of Saddam's palaces. Now a network of American cubicles and bulletin boards partitions the cavernous rooms.
This man began working as a judge in 1999. He says since the U.S. invaded Iraq, he doesn't have to worry about being put in prison for handing down a sentence.
Unidentified Man: (Through translator) For the first time, a judge can order the arrest of a minister, or the minister into prison. In the past we couldn't do that.
SHAPIRO: Under Saddam Hussein's regime, there were effectively two justice systems. This judge worked in a system that handled normal civil and criminal cases. The other system handled cases that Saddam had a special interest in. Steph Browne is the State Department's regime crimes liaison, with the office that coordinates between the U.S. government and the Iraqi High Tribunal on war crimes trials.
Ms. STEPHANIE BROWNE (Regime Crimes Liaison, U.S. State Department): Saddam Hussein essentially hijacked the judiciary. He set up this whole series of special courts that were directed very often at their targets or defendants, and they were essentially sham trials.
SHAPIRO: She described one case where Saddam brought currency traders before the special court. Their crime - allegedly dealing in American dollars. They were sentenced to lose their right hands.
Ms. BROWNE: They were taken then to a special hospital where the hand was surgically removed and they were tattooed on the forehead. Then they were not permitted to leave the country. The regime was afraid that they, of course, would talk about what had happened to themselves.
SHAPIRO: Baghdad's chief investigative judge was never forced to issue those kinds of sentences. Today, he says, he works hard to keep Sunni/Shiite considerations out of his courtroom while sectarian rifts continue to divide the rest of the country. A judge is like a medical doctor, he says, doctors treat patients without considering their backgrounds.
Unidentified Man: (Through translator) Same thing, the judge - when the judge is studying a case, he doesn't look, you know, what's the religion of the committer. A crime, a killing - a crime is a crime whether the committer is a Sunni or a Shiite, and the law is one law.
SHAPIRO: Attorney General Michael Mukasey met with this judge and others during his visit to Baghdad last month. Mukasey says the judges talked about the cases they were trying.
Mr. MICHAEL MUKASEY (U.S. Attorney General): One of them conveying almost as an aside the sense of what a great kick it was to try a case and actually decide it on the merits. You know, hey, get this, the side with the facts and the law on its side wins and the other side loses. That's quite remarkable.
SHAPIRO: One of the judges told Mukasey it was an honor to meet him.
Mr. MUKASEY: Which made me want to crawl under the table, because what I do on a day-to-day basis in terms of difficulty and stature doesn't come up to, figuratively up to his ankles.
SHAPIRO: Baghdad's chief investigative judge says since the fall of Saddam, he has seen the Iraqi justice system as a child - occasionally falling, still struggling to talk, but learning and growing.
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