RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Now, a story about justice or justice denied in Iraq. Days ago a court there acquitted a former high-ranking government official of terrorism and torture charges. Now, American officials are urging the Baghdad government to try again with a different defendant. They want a colonel put on trial for his role in torturing Sunnis at an infamous interior ministry prison known as Site 4.
NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has the story.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: This week the Iraqi government released Hakim al-Zamili. The former deputy health minister had spent more than a year in jail, accused of funding Shiite militia and using the ministry as a base for sectarian killings in 2005 and 2006.
Members of the death squads were seen driving ambulances and official health ministry cars as they trolled for Sunni victims. The militias raided hospitals, pulling Sunnis from their sickbeds and then murdering them. The situation was so bad, Sunnis stopped going to the hospitals all together. The deputy health minister's acquittal only confirmed the worst fears of many Sunnis about justice in Iraq.
Unidentified Woman #1: (Through Translator) They have killed our sons. They killed my brother. Zamili was in jail and now he is going to be allowed to go free and he can just go back to what he was doing before.
Unidentified Man: (Through translator) Here in Iraq, there's no court, no government, no country. Everyone gets to do whatever they want to do. There are no consequences.
Unidentified Woman #2: (Through Translator) All the people are angry and say a government that releases the criminals is criminal.
TEMPLE-RASTON: William Gallo is the director of the Army's Law and Order Task Force, which helped the Iraqis bring the Zamili case to trial. He concedes the verdict was a disappointment.
Mr. WILLIAM GALLO (Director, Justice Department Law and Order Task Force): I think there's always gonna be setbacks. But as long as the setbacks don't outnumber the gains and the progress, I think we are continuing - Iraq is continuing, I should say, on a positive course.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Judge Faiq Zaidan is the chief investigative judge at the Central Criminal Court of Iraq. He said there was little doubt that Zamili, who has close ties to Shiite clerk Moqtada al-Sadr, played some role in the recent sectarian violence. The court simply didn't have enough evidence to convict him.
Judge FAIQ ZAIDAN (Chief Investigative Judge, Central Criminal Court of Iraq): (Through translator) When it comes to Zamili, there's that saying where there's a smoke, there is fire, but the judge has to assess the proof. It is possible a detainee before the court is a criminal, but if the evidence is not conclusive, a judge has to proceed as such.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The Zamili loss has made choosing the next man in the docket that much more difficult. American and Iraqi officials told NPR a colonel in the Interior Ministry Security Force named Ali Abed Jasim will stand trial on torture and other charges in a matter of weeks. Again, Judge Faiq.
Judge FAIQ: (Through translator) The trial of Colonel Ali will be a totally different ballgame. This isn't as politically loaded as the Zamili trial and the evidence is better. We have a victim who is an eyewitness, a right victim who is still alive, who picked Ali out of a lineup. We have medical reports and videotapes.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The list of charges against Colonel Ali is an appalling concentration of brutality, running the gamut from rape to torture to murder. Prosecutors say he was one of the officials in the Interior Ministry responsible for a notorious Iraqi prison known as Site 4, where Shiite guards abused mostly Sunni detainees. Both Iraqi and American officials say this case will be different from Zamili's. Among other things, it was put together by an Iraqi-American unit called the Major Crimes Task Force, which the FBI helped create two years ago. The U.S. Army carried out the investigation in the Zamili trial. Judge Mugdad is the chief investigative judge at the Major Crimes Task Force and he says his team is better prepared to take on these difficult cases.
Judge MUGDAD (Chief Investigative Judge, Major Crimes Task Force): (Through translator) Nothing against the army, but they are not as specialized at this kind of investigation. The FBI has scientific tools and legal tools at its disposal. They go about an investigation in a proper way.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Even with an ironclad case, the verdicts in these cases are unpredictable. In determining guilt or innocence, Iraqi judges are used to concentrating on whether a defendant has confessed, and neither Zamili nor Colonel Ali admitted to any wrongdoing. The Colonel Ali trial is expected to open in a matter of weeks. Zamili is demanding the Health Ministry give him his old job back.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Baghdad.
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