On either side of the road, concrete blast walls stretch into the distance, cordoning off sections of the “Green Zone” and protecting sensitive installations. It is a sunny morning, and the weather has cooled enough that there was a slight chill when I crawled out of my bunk on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Despite wearing my full body armor and helmet in the vehicle, I can’t help but smile and stretch out my legs.
Compared to a HUMMWV there is plenty of room.
As the convoy speeds away from the Embassy and down a nearly deserted street, I find myself staring with fascination at a sight that I have never seen before.
A sight that is intimately familiar.
Twin scimitars thrust high into the air, steel grey edges crossing above a wide broad road.
In the distance, two other scimitars rise into the sky, their bleak points piercing the heavens.
The parade field.
It is a scene from my childhood.
From the 1991 gulf war.
Images of thousands of Republican Guard, goose-stepping in formation, their bayonets gleaming in the sunlight.
Images of white clad suicide bombers, declaring themselves Saddam Fedayeen and swearing eternal loyalty.
Images of an endless line of Scud missiles, draped with the black, green, and white of the Iraqi Flag driving past thousands of troops.
Images of Saddam Hussein firing his gold plated AK-47 into the air.
A chill runs down my back as the convoy drives past the now abandoned symbols of one man’s pride.
I can’t believe I am actually here.
Shaking my head, I focus on the road ahead of me. Up ahead, the first of the Chevrolet suburbans in the convoy has pulled off the road, and the soldiers are cautiously getting out. I can see them scanning up and down the road, looking for oncoming traffic.
As my vehicle pulls to a stop, I take the covering off of my optic and turn the laser sight on.
Baghdad is unfamiliar territory.
Following the other soldiers thru a door in the concrete blast wall, I find myself walking thru the remains of a park. To my front, a hideous concrete structure rises into the air. The circular concrete building is capped by a ruined clock tower. The clock is shattered and charred, a burnt-out relic of the fighting during the invasion.
The whole structure is surrounded by poured concrete benches, faded green grass and the pale green palm trees of a desolate park.
Turning to the soldier next to me, I ask quietly.
“Hey, what is that thing?”
The soldier turns to me with a smile.
I realize with a start that he is not a soldier.
He is a sailor.
A Naval JAG officer.
The JAG officer is wearing a spotless uniform, and his boots look brand new. His body armor is clean and neat, and I notice that he holds his weapon awkwardly while clutching at a sheaf of papers in his left hand.
His dark features display a young and earnest face.
He is one of the prosecutors in Iraq’s Central Criminal Court.
“As far as I have heard, it used to be a museum that housed the presents that people of Iraq gave to Saddam Hussein.”
As he looks at the building, the smile fades slightly.
Then he speaks as if to himself.
“I use the term ‘presents’ lightly. Most people gave Saddam gifts so that he would not kill off their families.”
He falls silent, and sets his shoulders, looking straight ahead.
Looking up at the gray concrete building towering above me, I find myself fighting a feeling of revulsion.
Sometimes it feels like this entire country is built on blood.
Entering Iraq’s Central Criminal Court building, I walk past armed Iraqi guards, and thru a metal detector manned by uniformed Iraqi Police. Despite carrying two firearms, a knife, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and wearing a body armor and a helmet, the metal detector does not go off.
I hope to god that thing works.
Inside the building, the grey concrete dome rises high into the air, and I find myself in a wide circular hallway with stairs leading up to the tower and down to the remains of a theatre in the basement.
Down in the basement, the JAG officer shows me where to put my body armor and rifle along with the other soldiers that have come to testify.
My 9mm Beretta, I tuck prominently into my belt, John Wayne style.
With this many armed Iraqis around I cannot afford to take any chances.
One of the soldiers glances over at the theatre. The stage has been ripped up and only the concrete support pillars remain. The theatre seats have been reduced to bent scrap metal.
He turns to me and speaks in a low voice.
“I heard that when the first troops found this place, the stage was set up as a torture chamber, and in between torturing people, Saddam used it to show snuff films to his friends.”
I suppress a shudder looking at the stage.
I wouldn’t put it past him.
The JAG officer walks up in his body armor.
“Alright, the trial is going to begin in a little bit. Let me take you upstairs and show you where to go.”
Turning, I follow him silently up the fake marble stairs to a waiting area just outside a courtroom.
The courtroom is small, and built out of a dark, richly stained wood. Several of these small courtrooms line the walls, built to accommodate a judge, desk, four chairs, and a wooden bench.
Outside the courtrooms, court appointed lawyers stand around talking quietly. Iraqi men and women, either family members of defendants, or witnesses present to testify, stand about with numbered signs around their necks in various stages of unease.
Against the back wall, I see the first female Iraqi police officer I have ever seen. The darkly pretty woman is wearing a light blue headscarf to match her blue police shirt, and a long blue denim skirt.
She is wearing heels.
It is a striking combination.
She notices me looking at her, and gazes boldly back, a slight smile on her lips.
I quickly turn away.
Standing every few feet is a U.S. Military Policeman, keeping a careful eye on the proceedings. They are clad in full body armor and in such mundane surroundings they look strangely intimidating.
The JAG officer looks up from his file of notes.
“I am going to go get the detainees. We are going to be in the courtroom on the left, and the Judge for the case is named Hassan. Just remember what we talked about last night and we should be good to go.”
I nod my head.
“So this Judge, Hassan, is going to decide what the facts are?”
The JAG officer puts down his notes and runs a hand briefly across his eyes.
“Yes, you see, this is a civil law system. You have to explain the facts of the case to the Judge, and then other witnesses will also explain their version of the events. The defendants will then be allowed to speak.”
He drops his hand and continues.
“The Judge, as the arbiter of all that is good and wise, is supposed to be able to sort thru the different stories and make a decision as to exactly what the facts are.”
“What happens then?”
“Well at that point, the Judge’s version of those facts is then forwarded up to a panel of three judges, who read the ‘facts’ and make a determination of guilt or innocence. A lot depends on the Judge's slant to the facts, and he is going to be looking at your body language and mannerisms to decide if you are telling the truth. I am acting as the prosecutor in the case, and I will be working to ensure that an accurate version of the events is presented, and to make sure that the Judge understands that version of the events.”
He falls quiet for a second and adjusts his immaculate body armor.
It doesn’t seem to fit him very well.
“Unfortunately, the Judge can put any spin on it he wants, and the three Judge panel will be influenced by his version of the events.”
In Iraq’s Central Criminal Court, even the slightest discrepancy about the facts can get the case dismissed.
Not the desired outcome.
I nod my head and he motions for me to stay put as he heads back down the stairs to get the detainees.
It doesn’t take long.
Turning around I recognize a familiar face coming up the steps wearing a yellow jumpsuit and handcuffs. For some reason the dark face, rough beard and disfigured fingers stand out like a beacon among all of the other detainees wearing yellow jumpsuits.
I haven’t seen him in four months.
Not since my patrol stopped his car at a snap check point, and he pulled a rocket hidden in white burlap sack out of the vehicle.
Not since an EOD Sergeant told me that what I had was a “righteous catch.”
With a flicker of recognition his eyes fix on my face. I feel certain that he recognizes me as one of the soldiers that captured him and sent him to Abu Ghraib.
He has waited there for the last four months, awaiting trial.
Behind him, I see a second figure in a yellow jump suit. He is younger, and looks like he has lost some weight.
It is the driver of the vehicle.
The driver and the passenger don’t look at one another.
The JAG officer appears again behind the detainees with a harried look on his face. He shakes my hand and then escorts me into the courtroom. The two detainees follow and sit side-by-side on the wooden bench at the back of the room, carefully watched by a Military Policeman.
The JAG officer sits opposite me.
Iraq’s Central Criminal Court is the only Court in the entire country that hears cases involving terrorist or insurgent activity.
Any insurgent detained anywhere in the country will eventually find his way to this courthouse.
One Court for an entire country filled with insurgent and criminal activity.
It is an incredibly daunting task.
No wonder he looks so tired.
I’m getting tired just thinking about it.
In the seat next to me sits the court appointed lawyer for the defendant. He is a small, nervous man, and is constantly patting his balding head, and twitching in his seat.
I dislike him instantly.
After a few minutes, during which the JAG officer reads a file on the facts of the case, the Judge walks into the room and takes a seat behind his desk.
He is a serious young man, with manicured fingers and a neatly trimmed moustache. Fresh out of judge school, he is wearing a gray suit and tie, with a gold watch and matching gold rimmed glasses.
To his right, an older, graying, slightly bent man takes his seat. Blank sheets of writing paper and a neat stack of carbon paper form a pile in front of him.
As the court reporter, he will write down everything that is said by each witness and the defendant.
The JAG officer looks up from his notes, glances at the judge, and then stands on his feet.
As everyone else rises, so do I.
The JAG officer says:
“Do you swear to tell the truth, so help you god?”
As he swears me in, the Iraqi judge nods his head with a serious expression on his face.
It is almost as if he thinks that there is a chance I will say no.
“You may be seated.”
With that, the trial begins.
“Are the two men you apprehended here in this room?”
I turn in my seat and point at the two individuals.
“Yes sir, he was the driver, and he was the passenger.”
The two men gaze blankly back at me.
“Please give me the facts of the case.”
“On or about . . .”
Speaking slowly and quietly, with long periods of silence in between each sentence to allow for the translation, I explain the entire story to the interpreter.
The interpreter translates my explanation into Arabic, and tells it to the Judge.
The Judge turns to the court reporter and tells him what to write down, thereby establishing the official facts of the case.
It is a slow and tedious process.
The JAG officer quietly guides the story as I speak, to ensure I hit upon all of the important facts.
When I finish he will also be allowed to cross-examine the defendants when they appear before the Judge.
After about 15 minutes of testimony, I finally get to the good part.
Raising my voice, I conclude:
“ . . . at that point, I detained him!”
For some reason, I was told that if I didn’t say those words, the charges would not stick.
I say the words with relish.
I note with disappointment that the entire effect is lost in translation.
After answering some final questions posed by the Judge, and signing copies of my testimony, I am escorted from the room. The Judge calls for a ten minute break, and the JAG officer follows, ready to call his next witness after the break and repeat the same procedure all over again.
Once outside the courtroom and in the hallway, he turns to me with a smile and another handshake.
“Hey Lieutenant, you did a great job! You are National Guard, right? What did you say you do in the civilian world?”
I have to smile at this.
“I am a lawyer.”
He looks blankly at me for a second, and his jaw drops open. Recovering quickly, his smile gets even wider.
”You’re shitting me! What the hell are you doing in the Infantry? Why aren’t you JAG? You’re an Infantry officer and a lawyer? That’s hot shit! I don’t know how you do it. No wonder . . .”
He falls silent for a second, a calculating look on his face.
“What do you practice?”
“Most of what I do is litigation.”
“Where are you licensed?”
He gazes at me with a speculative look in his eyes. Then quietly and deliberately, he hefts one of the manila folders in his hand and looks directly at me.
“So would you like to prosecute a case?”
His tone is casual.
My heart skips a beat.
I can’t believe what he is offering me.
I don’t hesitate for a second.
I can’t contain the excitement in my voice.
To get to appear before the Central Criminal Court of Iraq and prosecute an insurgent is almost like a dream come true.
But then a thought occurs to me.
“Look, I am not admitted here. I know nothing of the procedures. I am not even a JAG officer. Can I appear Ad Hac Vice before the court?”
He looks down at his watch and then he hefts the manila folder in his hand again.
“I am going to ask the judge if you can appear for this one particular occasion. You take the folder and familiarize yourself with the case. Don’t worry about the procedures. They haven’t really developed their procedural process yet. Just repeat what you saw me do while I was questioning you. Do the same for each witness, make sure they hit on the salient points, and then question the defendant. Don’t go after him too hard, or the Judge will get annoyed. Just poke a hole in his story, make sure the Judge understands that hole, and then cut it short. The entire trial should only take a little more than an hour.”
He hands me the file and points to another room across the hallway.
“I will go get your first two witnesses and the defendant, and meet you in that courtroom over there. The trial is supposed to begin in about 15 minutes. That should be plenty of time to learn the facts.”
He disappears back down the steps, off to get the two witnesses and the Military Police with the defendant.
Flipping open the manila folder, I quickly review a summary of the facts. Then I read thru the sworn statements made by the witnesses and a summary of the points that need to be made.
A weapons dealer was caught selling machine guns out of the trunk of his car.
The two soldiers that caught him are here to testify against him.
The dealer denies everything and claims that the soldiers planted the weapons on him, and let their interpreter beat him up.
For an instant, I close my eyes.
I feel like I am back in law school, having to read a brief on the fly and answer questions about the case posed by a law professor practicing the Socratic method.
Taking out my notepad, I jot down all of the important points I think the witnesses will need to hit.
I find myself shaking my head.
This is surreal.
The JAG officer appears back up the stairs with the two witnesses in tow. He is slightly out of breath from the climb in his body armor. Both of the witnesses are Sergeants, and I had spoken with them earlier that morning in the green zone.
The JAG officer introduces me.
“Sergeant, this it the prosecutor for the case. Just listen to what he tells you, remember what we talked about last night, and everything should go smoothly.”
The Sergeant looks at me questioningly.
As far as he knew, I was a witness like him and had never been to the Court before.
Out of the corner of his mouth he whispers.
“Hey Sir, are you a lawyer or something?”
I nod my head while keeping an eye on the notes in the manila folder as I memorize the facts of the case.
“Yes, I am.”
He looks relieved.
“Shit Sir, I thought you were Infantry.”
Despite myself, I can’t help but smile.
Behind us, a hard faced man in a yellow jumpsuit walks up the stairs escorted by the Military Police.
I recognize him from the photographs in the file.
The weapons dealer.
The Sergeant, who seemed about to say something, notices the weapons dealer and falls silent, his steady glare fixed on the face of the man he captured months earlier.
The door to the Courtroom opens, and the JAG officer beckons me forward.
“Alright, you ready? Good. Bring the witnesses and the defendant. I will talk to the Judge.”
I walk into the courtroom and sit in the chair reserved for the prosecutor, indicating to the Sergeant where he should sit. Behind me, the defendant sits on the wooden bench, a military policeman hovering nearby.
The Judge looks up from his notes. He is an older man, with distinguished features and graying hair. He keeps his silver glasses perched low on his nose, and seems to look over them more than thru them. On his desk in front of him, is a now familiar pile of photographs.
The JAG officer speaks to the interpreter, who turns to the Judge.
“Sir, this is Lieutenant Adam. We ask permission that this officer appear as prosecutor before the Court. He is an attorney in the United States, and is licensed in the State of Florida.”
The Judge looks at me quietly. His gaze holds mine for an instant, and then he curtly nods his head.
“Yes, he may appear as prosecutor.”
I feel a small shock of excitement.
I just got admitted to practice in the highest Court in Iraq.
I am only two years out of law school.
With a final nod, the JAG officer looks back down at his watch.
“I have to get back to my hearing. Do you have any more questions? No? Okay, I will be back when you are done.”
With that, he smiles encouragingly, and walks out of the room.
The room seems smaller than the court room in which I had been a witness.
The walls seem a little closer in, and it feels like there is slightly less air.
But then again, maybe it’s just me.
The Judge looks the Sergeant up and down, and asks for the Sergeant’s last name, state of residence, and rank.
Then he turns to me, his silver glasses flashing in the harsh fluorescent lighting.
The room is quiet.
Looking around, I remember the sequence of events from the earlier trial.
Then I stand up, and raise my right hand, preparing to administer the oath.
The Sergeant, watching me, also stands and raises his right hand.
“Do you swear to tell the truth, so help you god?”
The Sergeant nods his head.
I drop my right hand.
“You may be seated.”
And with that, my second trial in Iraq’s Central Criminal Court has begun.