Iraq’s newest protest movement has come to focus upon the country’s judiciary. Demands have been made to prosecute crooked officials and get rid of the chief judge Medhat Mahmoud who is seen as part of the corrupt system. Their voices have been joined by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who has brought up judicial reform as well. The judges have responded with promises of greater action, but this is just meant to stave off any real change.
Starting in August demonstrators began calling for Iraq’s judges to be reformed and the head of the Supreme Judicial Council Medhat Mahmoud to be dismissed. On August 14, 2015, in a show of strength demonstrators in Maysan’s Amarah, Babil’s Hillah, Dhi Qar’s Nasiriyah, Wasit’s Kut, and Karbala and Najaf cities all called for changing the judiciary starting with Judge Mahmoud. That same day Ayatollah Sistani’s office urged the government to focus on the judges as well. This was the latest focus of the protesters and the Ayatollah to try to clean up the Iraqi government.
That pressure led both Prime Minister Haider Abadi and the courts themselves to offer reform packages. The premier issued a reform program in August that called for the courts to come up with their own program to improve their work, and asked that corruption cases be expedited. At the same time, chief Judge Medhat Mahmoud said that the judiciary would be more aggressive in their prosecutions, which included committing more officials to delve into the issue. At the same time, the Judicial Council rejected any calls for the top judge to resign. Neither of these moves looked like they would be worthwhile. As constitutional scholar Zaid Al-Ali wrote in an article for the Washington Post these reforms suffered from a “poverty of ideas.” Asking for the judiciary to reform itself is no panacea for the problem. There is no reason for them to take any serious actions right now because the protesters can’t tough them, and Abadi is unwilling or unable to seriously take on any of Iraq’s institutions right now. A spokesman for the premier said as much when he told the press that Abadi has no real power over the judiciary. In fact the judges may move in the opposite direction.
On September 1, Judge Medhat Mahmoud met with two Hashd leaders that raised eyebrows. The judge met with Haid Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization and Abu Muhandis who is a commander of the Hashd forces. The two said that they fully supported the judiciary, which stood in contrast to the protesters and Ayatollah Sistani. That came on top of several Shiite politicians including former premier Nouri al-Maliki and Iranian officials like the Chief of Staff of the Iranian military General Hassan Firouzabadi becoming increasingly critical of the demonstrations as threatening Islam. This may be a move by pro-Iranian elites to use Judge Mahmoud to rule parts of Abadi’s reform effort as unconstitutional if they go too far and to protect themselves from any corruption charges.
Iraq’s courts and especially Judge Mahmoud have played important roles in the corruption of Baghdad. That starts with the fact that almost all of the judges are holdovers from the Saddam era, and are used to doing the bidding of the country’s rulers. That has led them to give into political pressure to not deal seriously with graft trials. They have also been open to bribes and been threatened and attacked by the ruling parties. For example under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq successfully demanded that he personally review all corruption cases and ordered specific cases be dropped. That helped explained why from 2004-2007 only 8% of corruption cases sent to court by the anti-graft Integrity Commission got a guilty verdict. Those that were convicted have almost all been low levels officers or people outside of the country while the powerful have consistently been let off. The courts were also notorious for giving into Maliki’s demands to go after his political opponents such as the heads of the Central Bank of Iraq and Integrity Commission. That alliance with the prime minister also protected Judge Mahmoud from his critics in 2013 when the Accountability and Justice Commission unsuccessfully tried to remove him for working under Saddam.
So far Iraq’s judiciary has done nothing substantive in the face of the increasing pressure from demonstrators and Najaf. They have said that they will do more about corruption, which is likely just meant to appease the Iraqi street rather than lead to any meaningful changes. Judge Mahmoud may be sensing that he can simply ride out the wave of protests by issuing such statements. Maliki showed that the executive can exert huge influence upon the judiciary that has a historical mindset to do the bidding of the ruling party, but Abadi may not be willing or able to bring about the necessary changes. Until there is real pressure aimed at the judges from the political class the courts will continue to carry out business as usual.
Al-Ali, Zaid, “Premature excitement about Iraq’s new government reforms,” Washington Post, 8/14/15
Mamouri, Ali, “Iraqis protest corruption, lack of services while politicians blame everyone but themselves,” Al Monitor 8/25/15
Al Masalah, “Medhat al-Mahmoud al-Khazali calls to resign,” 8/30/15
Morris, Loveday, “Beyond terrorism, Iraq’s leader is struggling to fight
New Sabah, “Integrity confirms the judiciary announced exceptional procedures in resolving the theft of public money,” 9/7/15
- “The judiciary to take important decisions to speed up the resolution of the corruption files and punish the corrupt,” 9/6/15
- “President of the Supreme Judicial Council gives direct orders to hold accountable those who are corrupt,” 8/15/15
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Iraq’s Top Cleric Urges Reforms To Focus On Judiciary,” 8/14/15
Salaheddin, Sinan, “Iraq Judicial Council Rejects Calls for Top Judge to Resign,” Associated Press, 8/17/15
Shafaq News, “Al-Muhandes and al-Amiri inform Mahmoud of their “full support” to the judiciary and its symbols,” 9/1/15
Sotaliraq, “Demonstration in Karbala support Abadi and demanding the resignation of Mahmoud,” 8/14/15
- “Demonstrations in Baghdad before the court building to demand the dismissal of Mahmood,” 8/31/15
- “Dhi Qar protesters demanding appointment of efficient administrators and closing party offices,” 8/14/15
- “Hundreds demonstrating in the center of Hilla, demanding the dissolution of the provincial council and the dismissal of the governor,” 8/14/15
- “Hundreds demonstrating in the center of Kut demanding the reform of the judiciary and the accelerate the pace of reforms,” 8/14/15
- “Maysan protesters are demanding the resignation of Mahmoud and activation of the amnesty law and the dismissal of the provincial council,” 8/14/15
- “Najaf protesters demanding the dissolution of the council and an independent judiciary,” 8/14/15