Iraqi tribes take law and justice into their own hands

Friday 22/01/2016
Tribes have the means to en­force their judicial rulings through tribal militias

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.