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Trial Collapse Mars Iraqi Legal System


From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.



And I'm Anthony Brooks in for Alex Chadwick.

BRAND: Voters are at the polls in four states today. We here at NPR don't do any stories on the candidates on the race that could influence voters on Election Day, but we will provide special coverage of the results when the polls close tonight, and you can check for the latest results.

BROOKS: We begin our program today in Iraq, where Shiite radicals are demanding that the U.S. military immediately release two former high-ranking government officials after an Iraqi court cleared them of terrorism charges. The pair had been accused of orchestrating sectarian kidnappings and killings. The trial was meant to showcase Iraq's ability to mete out impartial justice.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports from Baghdad.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Former Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili is a leading member of a group linked to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He and a co-defendant, the ministry's security chief, Hameed al-Shimmari, were found not guilty yesterday on charges that they abused their positions and allowed sectarian killings under their watch.


Today Sadr's followers said the men ought to be released. Sheikh Salah al-Obeidi is a spokesman for Sadr.

Sheikh SALAH AL-OBEIDI: Being released is really important humanitarianly, because they have to go back to their families after being announced innocent.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He also said the two should be allowed to return to work at the Health Ministry. The trial has been a high visibility one in Iraq. Prosecutors accused the two men of, among other things, permitting death squads to use health ministry cars and ambulances to target Sunnis when sectarian violence rocked Baghdad in 2005 and 2006.

The men were also accused of corruption, funneling money to Shiite militias, and allowing Shiite fighters into hospitals so they could literally pull Sunni victims from their sick beds.

The trial came to be about more than just the guilt or innocence of two men. It became a test of the willingness of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government to hold senior officials accountable for sectarian violence. Prosecutors have spent a year collecting evidence against the two men. But it didn't take long for complications to set in.

The court switched the judges for what they call administrative reasons, but officials close to the court said that one of the original judges was pressured to promise to acquit al-Zamili. Then some witnesses said they were too scared to testify, so they didn't show up. Others changed their stories on the stand.

Defense lawyer Amir Taher said the case fell apart because evidence against the two men was weak.

Mr. AMIR TAHER (Attorney): (Through translator) There was no evidence for the accusations, only hearsay. We heard that Hakim al-Zamili controls the ministry, but we didn't hear that anyone got killed or kidnapped inside the ministry.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It took the panel of judges just two days to agree. They acquitted the men of all charges for lack of evidence. The pair were returned to the U.S. military and are still being held today as what the military calls security detainees.

The military often hold people who are cleared of charges in special detention if they are seen as continuing to pose a security risk. There's a special board made up of Iraqis and Americans that then determines whether the detainee can be released. Sadr's Obeidi said the party was not pressuring the board directly.

Mr. OBEIDI: Until now we haven't made any kind of pressure in order to release them. And we have accepted the legal steps concerning their case.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The judge's decision is on appeal.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.