Iraqi tribes take law and justice into their own hands
BAGHDAD - “I was forced to pay 70 million Iraqi dinars ($58,000), otherwise myself and my tribesmen would have suffered vengeance,” Khaled said, recalling how he had no option but to acknowledge tribal rule in a case filed against him by the family of his deceased wife.
“My wife and daughter died when their migrant boat sank in the Mediterranean. Her family accused me of having encouraged her to emigrate, although I only accepted after the whole thing was coordinated with her brother who lives in Europe,” he said, asking to be identified only by his first name.
Khaled’s case illustrates the growing de facto judicial autonomy exercised by Iraq’s tribes vis-à-vis state judicial institutions, a trend that intensified after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, largely due to weak central authority. Many families and individuals, especially in central and southern provinces and certain areas of Baghdad, resort to their clan or tribe to resolve disputes and determine punishment and financial compensation for damages or losses incurred.
The tribes settle disputes among their members and other clans ranging from commercial to criminal offences, impose penalties and determine settlement of blood money.
In one of the ugliest cases of “tribal justice”, a tribe in the southern province of Basra sanctioned a rival clan by making them offer 50 of their women in compensation for the death of tribesmen in an armed dispute. The women were forced to marry members of the compensated tribe in line with tribal customs, which did not look at them as rightful spouses but as blood money.
Social activist Bushra Obeidi underscored injustices done to women under tribalism. “Offering women as a reparation to settle tribal disputes is a crime punishable by civil status law but unfortunately there is no authority to implement the rule of law,” Obeidi said.
“Civil and humanitarian organisations are struggling to defend women, with the government failing to assume its responsibilities in protecting the Iraqi people especially women who have been wronged by tribal justice.”
Though it declined with the advent of the Ba’ath regime in the 1960s, the power of the tribes was gradually restored as weakened central government accommodated them to maintain order and security in their territory. Tribal leaders also took advantage of the absence of government troops, who were sent to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) rather than settling conflicts in tribal areas. Baghdad recently sent reinforcements, including, according to the Associated Press, a tank regiment and a commando battalion, to southern Basra to try to quell tribal disputes.
Jurist Ali al-Rafii’ stressed that the state’s judicial authorities “should be the guarantor for all citizens who are supposed to seek justice at official courts and not with the tribe”.
“The role of the judiciary has been expropriated by the tribe, which is henceforth dictating its own rules that mostly contradict state’s regulations and the constitution,” Rafii’ said. “Many tribes and families of tribal leaders are making a living from the income that comes with settling disputes.”
He deplored the weakness of successive governments that came to power after 2003, arguing that “these have sought to reinforce their rule by relying on tribal and sectarian support at the expense of citizens’ rights”.
“In parallel, the judicial authorities lacked transparency and credibility. Most investigations into tribal incidents or crimes are not followed up properly and results are never disclosed, like in the case of 250 university students who have been killed [at the height of sectarian violence of 2006-08] but nobody knows who is behind the killings,” Rafii’ added.
Social researcher Alia Hosni noted that tribes have the means to enforce their judicial rulings through tribal militias that have taken on the role of security forces in their respective areas. “The weakness of the state’s judicial and security institutions pushed many to seek the protection of their tribes in order to secure their rights and guard their properties,” Hosni said.
“Moreover, most tribes are covered by government parties which bequeathed to them powers and privileges that the judiciary is unable to challenge. Even judges have been seeking the protection of their tribes after facing threats by tribal militias.”
Politicians have also been seeking tribal assistance. In one case, the tribe of MP Hanan al-Fatlawi, leader of the Irada Movement, fined the tribe of Baligh Abou Kalal, spokesman for the Homeland Parliamentary Bloc, 100 million dinars ($84,000) for making “slanderous” TV comments.
Political analyst Wathek al-Hashimi predicted an even bigger role for the tribes in settling disputes. “This is because the Iraqi judiciary is going through a serious crisis, suffering mainly from public accusations and distrust, which further undermines its ability to counter tribal rule.”
According to For the Sake of Iraq, a local human rights non-governmental organisation, some 800 tribal rulings were made in the Baghdad area in May 2015, whereas 1,200 cases were settled in Najaf and 2,450 in Basra during the same period.
“The (tribal) militias have become synonymous to security forces and the tribes are now equivalent to the judicial authorities,” Hosni remarked.