Last Chance at an Iraqi Prosecution?

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Thomas Dworzak / Magnum for TIME

General Mehdi al-Gharawi

For months Mehdi al-Gharawi has been hearing about the tense conversations concerning his fate going on behind closed doors around Baghdad. American lawyers, Iraqi judges, parliamentarians, ranking officers at the Ministry of Interior and advisers to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have all been discussing the possibility of a trial for Gharawi, a former commander in the Ministry of Interior who stands accused of orchestrating the systematic torture of detainees. Gharawi, who maintains his innocence, has even become the source of repeated arguments between Maliki, on one side, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and commanding Gen. David Petraeus, on the other.

Maliki is the only Iraqi official who can clear the way for a hearing of Gharawi's case, which is in the middle of a legal tangle. The Prime Minister is not moving in that direction. Crocker, Petraeus and other American officials want to see Gharawi in court to face the allegations against him. But Maliki has shielded Gharawi and allowed him to remain free. How much longer, though can the prime minister resist pressure from top American officials? Gharawi tells TIME that he might be better off just going to court and settling once and for all the lingering questions about his alleged crimes during the height of Iraq's sectarian violence two years ago. "If they think I have made mistakes, I would like to go to trial and get this over with," Gharawi says. "I'm ready to go to court."

Countless cases of torture and murder emerged in Iraq as sectarian violence raged for roughly a year following the destruction of a sacred Shi'ite shrine in Samarra by Sunni militants in February 2006. In pursuing the insurgents, many in Iraq's largely Shi'ite security forces began to work with murderous elements of Shi'ite militias such as the Mahdi Army of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and its rival armed Shi'ite faction, the Badr Brigade. Numerous officials in Maliki's government were implicated in criminal violence as dozens of mutilated bodies surfaced on the streets of Baghdad each day during 2006 and 2007.

In response, the Interior Ministry announced in the fall of 2006 the dismissal of some 3,000 employees thought to be involved in either graft or human rights abuses and referred hundreds of cases to Iraqi courts. Two ranking officials from the Ministry of Health were taken into custody on suspicion of organizing a sectarian murder ring in Baghdad's hospitals. But many of those cases stalled or fell apart as they coursed through Maliki's predominantly Shi'ite government; no official of consequence has been to account.

Gharawi remains the only senior government official who may face criminal proceedings related to sectarian violence in Iraq. Many Iraqi officials would like to see the matter brushed aside. But top American officials view a trial for Gharawi as critical toward proving that the costly political experiment in Iraq has brought about a government adhering to Western notions of the rule of law rather than becoming just another throwback Middle Eastern regime.

"We've had some fairly heated discussions on this," says Crocker, who considers the matter unresolved. "There is absolutely no question in my view that Mehdi Gharawi should be in front of a court to answer these charges. A good job was done on the investigation and the development of the evidence and witness accounts. There's a solid case there."

A body called the Major Crimes Task Force conducted an in-depth probe of Gharawi amid allegations that he oversaw the torture of mainly Sunni detainees while he served as the major general in charge of the Ministry of Interior's Public Order Special Police Division in 2005 and 2006. The task force, a joint team of experienced U.S. and Iraqi criminal investigators, took testimony from some 40 witnesses who implicated Gharawi in at least four cases of torture and four rapes. Witnesses, who included roughly 20 actual victims and officers who served under Gharawi, told investigators that he ordered savage beatings and watched as interrogators brutalized detainees. Some witnesses told the task force that Gharawi personally took part in torture in other instances.

The task force investigators came to believe Gharawi was linked to multiple murders as well and ultimately recommended a trial. But Gharawi's allies high in the Iraqi government intervened. Minister of Interior Jawad al-Bolani invoked a special clause in the Iraqi criminal code that allows cabinet ministers to block trials of subordinates deemed to have carried out government duties properly. The law is meant to protect government officials from frivolous or sectarian legal proceedings, but American officials in Baghdad working to bolster Iraq's struggling courts felt that Bolani was wrongly protecting Gharawi. Their complaints rose all the way up the American chain of command to Petraeus and Crocker, who began pressing Maliki to undo the waiver allowing Gharawi to remain free.

"It's very important that the Iraqi people see that the those who were in positions of authority in particular are held to the same standards as are all citizens of Iraq," says Petraeus. "That was not the case in Iraq of course during Saddam's time. And it is a principle of the Iraqi constitution. That's really all that the ambassador and I have sought in that case."

Maliki has maintained silence on the case publicly and signaled no willingness to reconsider his standing position, despite the pressure Crocker and Petraeus say they plan to keep up. Saied Fadhil al-Share'e, Maliki's advisor on internal affairs, says the matter is closed since an internal investigation at the Ministry of Interior into the same allegations found no evidence supporting such allegations. "There was a big investigation about the Gharawi case, and investigators could not find anything against him. He was cleared legally," al-Share'e says. Gharawi emphatically argues the same. "There is no evidence at all, no witness, no official documents, nothing," says Gharawi, who cannot seem to find a sense of exoneration despite being officially cleared, at least as things stand now. The possibility of Maliki giving in to U.S. demands at some point looms over him every day.