- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2005

BAGHDAD — Insurgents convicted of serious weapons and explosives offenses in Iraq are given prison terms as short as six months under the country’s new court system.

To the dismay of both coalition forces and the new Iraqi government, people found to have hoarded or transported huge stashes of bombs, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades are frequently treated as leniently as drunk drivers and pickpockets.

Concern is now growing among U.S. forces that Iraq’s new central criminal court, composed of many judges from Saddam Hussein’s era, is being lenient to demonstrate its independence from the coalition.

Some Shi’ite judges even have complained privately that their Sunni colleagues are giving out light sentences to Sunni defendants to show a degree of sympathy with the insurgents.

Though coalition commanders are anxious to be seen to respect the judges’ independence, a senior U.S. officer serving as a liaison with the court told the Sunday Telegraph of his concern that it did not pose a deterrent.

“There are times when the sentences are a source of frustration for the soldiers involved, but we have committed ourselves to respecting the independence of the court and the decisions it makes. But this is a frustration shared by other parts of the Iraqi government,” said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for U.S. military’s detainee operations in Iraq.

The court, which sits under tight security in a former museum next to Baghdad’s green zone, deals with many cases brought with the help of U.S. troops.

Though a handful of defendants over the past year have received prison terms of up to 30 years, a list of decisions for December, the most recent available, showed much lighter sentences.

One defendant, Adnan Tawfeeh Hamde, was arrested after U.S. soldiers found 11 rocket-propelled grenades, 12 assault rifles, 5,000 rounds of ammunition and a bag of explosives at his house. He received a sentence of one year in prison, as did two men caught in their car with a 155 mm artillery shell and detonator, common equipment for making roadside bombs.

“The penalty for possession of illegal weapons under Iraqi law is anything up to 30 years,” said one senior judge, who asked not to be identified. “Six months is supposed to be for someone found with an old pistol or something. Anybody caught with rockets or missiles should be looking at 10 years at least.

“Many of the judges are Sunnis from the old Saddam regime and, even though the insurgents are trying to kill them now, they still don’t like sentencing their Sunni brothers to long stints in jail. How will we get law and order if these people are allowed back out so soon?” the judge asked.

Privately, U.S. officials say the lenient sentencing presents them with difficulty in combating the insurgency, with some defendants spending less time in prison serving their sentence than they do on bail awaiting trial.

Madhat al Mahmoud, the president of the judicial council, declined to discuss sentencing policy.

“I cannot say whether a sentence is appropriate or not, without examining each case in detail,” he said. “We have a good judicial system, and we have to respect it.”

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