N.H. legal officials offer advice in Iraq

Two of New Hampshire’s top legal officials spent a week in Iraq last month talking to justice leaders there about how to function after spending decades under the thumb of a dictator.The visit was part of a series of visits by Justice Department officials organized by the U.S. State Department and a vital part of nation-building,according to New Hampshire’s U.S. attorney, John Kacavas.Kacavas and U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Laplante were in Baghdad June 20-27 speaking with judges and prosecutors and teaching seminars about judicial independence and devotion to the rule of law above all other considerations, according to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.Kacavas and Laplante also met with Iraq’s deputy minister of justice, Chief Justice Medhat al-Mahmoud, judges from the Iraqi High Tribunal and officials from the country’s Commission on Integrity.“I think that it’s important because it helps fulfill an obligation we as a country have to the country of Iraq,” Laplante said of the visit. “We have obligations to help rebuild their country.”“As the military is drawing down, it is all the more important that strong civilian institutions are developed and nurtured,” Kacavas said. “If we don’t do that, in my view, we will have wasted the efforts that have been made so far.”Iraq’s legal system is very different from the U.S. adversarial system. Instead of two lawyers arguing to a jury, Iraq’s inquisitorial system puts investigative judges at the center of criminal and civil trials. It is the judges who question both sides and then render a decision, Kacavas said.Meanwhile, the country also is just delving into forensic evidence and needs to establish standards and train criminologists and police officers in those areas.Despite the differences, the importance of judges and other judicial officials remaining independent of political or social pressures and being beholden only to what the law demands is vital to a fair and impartial justice system, Laplante said.“I think they’re doing as well as can be expected,” he said.Laplante said much of the evidence in Iraqi courts is based on statements and confessions. He and Kacavas talked a lot about the importance of “corroborative evidence” — such as DNA analysis, documentation and firearms records — that “takes the human subjectivity out of the picture,” Laplante said.That is a big change for a country where for decades the rule of law was subject to the whim of a dictator, Kacavas said, and one of the main challenges legal officials in Iraq face.“I am convinced that the rule of law is the enemy of oppression,” Kacavas said. “We are there now and must commit ourselves to doing the best we can to help them grow these institutions. They’ve made tremendous strides.”Laplante said the judiciary’s major hurdle, and that of the entire government, is overcoming decades of deep-seated mistrust of the government. His goal over the week was to encourage judges to do their part in repairing that trust by being efficient and issuing “even-handed” and independent decisions.“It’s restoring their confidence in the government’s ability to function in an evenhanded, fair way that’s a big challenge,” Laplante said. “My goal there was to encourage the judiciary to undertake practices that would engender that confidence.”Added Kacavas: “We have weeded the garden. If we walk away, the weeds will come back. The lives lost in Iraq will have been lost in vain. I really believe that. We can really plant the seeds for a stable Iraq down the road.”They also visited a boxing event at the U.S. Embassy for Iraqi youth, where Laplante said his days as a U.S. Boxing Federation-certified referee weren’t all that different than his time on the bench. — JOSEPH COTE/THE TELEGRAPH