Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Iraq’s Latest Controversy, The Attempted Removal of Chief Justice Medhat Mahmoud

Iraqi politics are never without drama. In February 2012, the Accountability and Justice Commission, which replaced the deBaathification Commission, announced that it had removed Chief Justice Medhat Mahmoud from office for his work under the Baathist regime. Mahmoud headed the Iraqi Supreme Court, the Judicial Council, and the Federal Appeals Court. Immediately after the decision, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki removed the head of the Accountability Commission, while Mahmoud won an appeal to overturn his removal. Now it seems that events have come full circle as the leadership of the Accountability and Justice Commission is the new center of controversy rather than the Chief Justice.

Chief Justice Medhat Mahmoud is in charge of Iraq’s judiciary (Shafaq News)

On February 12, 2013, the Accountability and Justice Commission removed Chief Justice Medhat Mahmoud from office for ties to the former regime. Mahmoud started working as a judge in 1960, and continued in that position all the way through the Baathist governments to the present. Mahmoud appealed his case, and on February 19, a court reversed his removal saying that it did not find any strong evidence between the judge and the rule of Saddam Hussein. The Accountability Commission announced at the beginning of February that it was starting an investigation of several judges after it received a request to do so from independent parliamentarian Sabah al-Saadi. Mahmoud is the head of the Iraqi Supreme Court, and the Federal Appeals Court. Beforehand he was also the head of the Higher Judicial Council, but lost that spot under a new law passed in December 2012. The move by the Accountability Commission came as a bit of a surprise as everyone in Iraqi politics knew that he had a long career under both Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein. Holding any kind of high position under those men opened the opportunity to be removed under the deBaathification legislation. That also makes the decision by the appeals court puzzling as well.

Judge Mahmoud’s reign over Iraq’s judiciary for the last several years has garnered plenty of criticism from many sectors. At first, Mahmoud won favor with the Americans when Paul Bremer appointed him supervisor of the Justice Ministry in June 2003. He then became the deputy president of the Federal Appeals Court, before taking it over in March 2005. He then became the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and the leader of the Judicial Council. While Mahmoud claimed that he was trying to maintain an independent judiciary against interference by Iraq’s politicians, his critics both within and without the country believed that he was cozying up to the prime minister. In February 2010, the Supreme Court became involved in that year’s parliamentary elections when it reversed a lower court’s decision by disqualifying over 500 candidates for alleged Baathist ties. That came right after Maliki met with Judge Mahmoud. In January 2011, the Court ruled that all the country’s independent commissions, the Election Commission, the Integrity Commission, and the Accountability and Justice Commission were under the cabinet, despite the constitution explicitly stating that they were the parliament’s responsibility. Mahmoud has also been criticized for concentrating power over the judiciary in his hands, and interfering in decisions of the courts. A U.N. official said that no one on the Judicial Council for example, could make any decisions without the approval of the chief justice. A senior judge told the International Crisis Group that many of his peers’ mindset was shaped by years of working under Saddam, when it was dangerous to act independently and the executive was feared. They have carried this over into the present time, and are being accommodating to Maliki as a result. Finally, a former judge told the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction that 40-90% of decisions made by the courts came under outside influence either through threats or bribes by politicians and militants. All together that meant Judge Mahmoud had plenty of enemies. His decisions angered many, and his critics believed that he was in the pocket of the prime minister. That meant there were plenty who could have been waiting for the right time to try to unseat him.

Independent PM Saadi has been leading a campaign against Judge Mahmoud for several years now (AP)

Legislator Sabah al-Saadi and the head of the Accountability and Justice Commission Falah Hassan Shanshal have been accused of leading the charge against Judge Mahmoud, but it is not that clear cut. Saadi has definitely been pushing for the removal of Mahmoud for years. For example, in July 2011, Saadi complained that Mahmoud had given into political pressure when he cancelled arrest warrants for former Trade Minister Abdul al-Falah al-Sudani and Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Safi al-Din al-Safi, both of which were from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law list. (1) A year later, Saadi called Judge Mahmoud a leftover from Saddam’s dictatorship, and criticized his decisions that gave the premier control over all the country’s independent commissions. In December 2012, Saadi said the judge was a supporter of Maliki’s “dictatorship.” Many commentators have also pointed to Commission head Shanshal of the Sadr Trend as being behind the move against Mahmoud. The Sadr bloc however, has gone back and forth about the judge and the judiciary. In April, Moqtada al-Sadr denounced Maliki for becoming an autocrat, and said, “The acts of marginalization [by Maliki]… and politicization of the judiciary … lead to a dictatorship [and] … using the armed forces or the judiciary to eliminate [opponents] are two sides of the same coin.” Then in September, when some members of parliament wanted to start a signature campaign against Judge Mahmoud, the Sadrists said that they supported him, and would block any moves against him. Mahmoud has been in Saadi’s crosshairs for years, because he believes that the judge is aligned with the prime minister, and allowing him to set up an autocracy. The Sadrists however usually talk badly about Maliki, but then never act against him, because they are still the premier’s strongest supporters. The contradictory statements by Sadr in April and then his lawmakers in September are a perfect example of that. The Accountability Commission itself is split between various parties including the Kurdish Coalition, the Iraqi National Movement, State of Law, and the Sadrists meaning that Shanshal by himself could not push through any decision against Judge Mahmoud without support from the other lists. All of those parties with the exception obviously of Maliki’s own list have issues with the prime minister that could have motivated them to act against him with this measure. In April 2013, Iraq is also due for provincial elections, so the dismissal could have been political posturing in anticipation of the voting.

Premier Maliki immediately responded with a counter attack. On February 17, his legal adviser told the press that Accountability and Justice Commission head Shanshal was dismissed, because he was never approved by parliament. Lawmaker Saadi then claimed that Maliki issued an order through the cabinet to cancel all the decisions made by the Commission, while under Shanshal. Mohammed Badri of Dawa-Iraq Party was named as his replacement. His first action was to hold a meeting with four of the seven members of the Commission, who then voted to remove Shanshal from the Commission altogether. That has to be approved by parliament. The accountability commission in the legislature responded by saying that it supported Shanshal, and that he could hold his position until lawmakers voted to confirm him. Then on February 18, Speaker of Parliament Hussein Nujafi rejected Maliki’s decision to dismiss Shanshal, and reappointed him to be the head of the Commission. The appeals court however, which said Judge Mahmoud could stay in office, ruled that Maliki had the authority to appoint a new head of the commission as well. Ironically, the fate of Shanshal and the leadership of the Accountability and Justice Commission is the main point of contention now that the appeals court has saved Judge Mahmoud. Leading members of parliament have come out for Shanshal, while Maliki and his allies are his opponents. This was quite a move by the premier, because the debate has largely shifted away from the judiciary to the Commission.

Every other month it appears that a new controversy arises amongst Iraq’s elite. This new one is part of the larger battle for power between Prime Minister Maliki and his opponents. While it was not clear which individuals were behind the move to dismiss Judge Mahmoud it took a combination of parties that were all against the premier on the Accountability and Justice Commission to vote against him. Judge Mahmoud and Maliki did not stand idly by, and showed once and for all that they were allied with each other, when the judge won his appeal to hold onto his position, and then the prime minister dismissed the head of the Commission, cancelled all of his decisions, and named his replacement, thus shifting the focus away from Judge Mahmoud to the Commission. This controversy is likely to dominate the political scene for the next few weeks until things die down like the previous ones did before another conflict arises. Sadly this is another example of the dysfunction of Iraq’s current government. Maliki and his critics are as far apart as ever. The opposition suffers from deep divisions, which usually allows the prime minister to come out on top. This will not end until the next parliamentary elections in 2014 leaving these tit for tat reprisals as the main focus of the elite’s energies.


1. Al-Rayy, “Saadi accused the President of the Judicial Council “fail” on the back of the cancellation of arrest warrants,” 7/12/11


AIN, “Sadrist MP elected as head of Justice & Accountability Committee,” 10/8/12

AK News, “Judicial institution proved its independence, says Ahrar bloc,” 9/13/12

Alsumaria, “The discriminatory denounce De Mahmood,” 2/19/13
- “Justice and Accountability: Denunciation de Mahmood and legal Badri began working,” 2/19/13
- “Reappointing Shanshal of Parliament headed accountability and government’s decision to void,” 2/18/13

International Crisis Group, “Failing Oversight: Iraq’s Unchecked Government,” 9/26/11

Al-Mada, “Shanshal announce the start of the audit request inclusion Medhat al-Mahmoud and some judges of accountability and justice,” 2/7/13

National Iraqi News Agency, “Adel Maliki demands JA to show legal evidence for including Medhat al-Mahmoud with its measures,” 2/15/13
- “BREAKING NEWS Medhat al-Mahmoud included in Justice, Accountability measures,” 2/13/13
- “Maliki assigns Bakhtiar Omar instead of Shanshal,” 2/18/13
- “Maliki cancels all decisions taken by the Accountability Commission during Shanshal’s presidency,” 2/18/13
-“Al-Maliki removes head of accountability and justice commission from his post,” 2/17/13
- “Sabah al-Saadi: accused Chairman of Federal Court as a great maker of dictatorship in Iraq,” 7/12/12
- “Sabah al-Saadi: The “Fetish” of Medhat al-Mahmoud has fallen,” 2/14/13

Al-Rayy, “Saadi accused the President of the Judicial Council “fail” on the back of the cancellation of arrest warrants,” 7/12/11

Salaheddin, Sinan, “Iraq panel clears senior judge over Saddam ties,” Associated Press, 2/19/13

Shafaq News, “Judge Hassan Humairi head of the Supreme Judicial Council,” 2/12/13
- “Maliki adviser: Shanshal’s assignment canceled,” 2/17/13
- “Parliament assigns Shanshal for the Accountability,” 2/18/13
- “Shanshal’s nomination withdrawn from Justice and Accountability Commission,” 2/19/13

Sowell, Kirk, “Inside Iraqi Politics No. 48,” 10/16/12

Special Inspector General For Iraq Reconstruction, “Hard Lessons,” 1/22/09
- “Quarterly Report to the United States Congress,” 4/30/11

Sugarman, Eli and Al-Nidawi, Omar, “Back in Black The Return of Muqtada al-Sadr,” Foreign Affairs, 2/11/13

Visser, Reidar, “Iraq Gets A New De-Baathification Board but the Supreme Court Becomes a Parody,” Iraq and Gulf Analysis, 5/7/12
- “The Political Dynamics behind the Downfall of Midhat al-Mahmoud, Iraq’s Supreme Court Chief,” Iraq and Gulf Analysis, 2/15/13

Wicken, Stephen and Sullivan, Marisa, “2013 Iraq Update #7: De-Baathification Body Ousts Iraq’s Chief Justice as Protests Continue,” Institute for the Study of War, 2/15/13

1 comment:

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi said...

Joel, good overview of the issue. I have written something on this matter for The Daily Star in Lebanon (yet to be published) and above all agree with your point that the existence of Sadrists in the De-Baathification committee cannot be the only thing behind the attempted removal of Mahmoud: Shanshal had been head of the commission for months.

If it were all about the Sadrists then they would have tried to act against Mahmoud months ago. I think Saedi's attack towards the end of January regarding Mahmoud and the new judiciary law etc. provided the opportunity to pounce, so to speak.

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