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Building a Criminal Court in Kirkuk, Iraq

(Boston, Revised 12/17/09) New England Law | Boston: “Our mission was the law, but we were military first,” says Timothy Keeton ’95, describing his role in the construction of a provincial court in one of the world’s most dangerous war zones. As a U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander attached to a U.S. Army Civil Affairs Unit, Keeton carried out that mission while enduring sweltering 125-degree heat, navigating roads where military and civilians were routinely killed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) placed by insurgents and managing a construction project with no background in that field.

From December 2006 through March 2008, Keeton served as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). He and his colleagues were responsible for overseeing the building of a branch court in Kirkuk, Iraq, that would take some of the cases previously handled by the Central Criminal Court of Iraq (CCCI) in Baghdad, 150 miles away. Keeton and the PRT were charged with directing the conversion of former Army barracks into the new Kirkuk courthouse. An adjacent office building had to be furnished with beds and furniture, to be made into living space for judges who would travel from Baghdad.


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“That’s where lawyers, unfamiliar with building and engineering matters, had to become instant construction project managers. We would only half joke that ‘good enough’ was a construction standard,” says Keeton. “The roads we traveled on were frequently bombed by insurgents,” he says, describing the journey from the Coalition Forward Operating Base, where he was stationed, to the site of the branch court. “From the minute we left the gate, I wasn’t a lawyer. I was truck commander. You had to know how to compartmentalize yourself.”

Why a branch court?

In Kirkuk’s ancient ruins.
In Kirkuk’s ancient ruins.

Before the branch court was in operation, many of Kirkuk’s detainees scheduled for trial in Baghdad never made it to the court, Keeton says, “for a variety of reasons, from the bribing of corrupt [police] escorts to outright escape,” and there was a three-year backlog of cases waiting to be heard. Now, criminals convicted in Kirkuk are swiftly transported to prison to serve sentences or await execution, Keeton reports. The backlog of court cases has been alleviated, he adds, increasing public confidence in the criminal justice system. Two days after the court’s construction was completed, he recalls, “Local media broadcast that, for the first time since the liberation of Iraq, everyone who had committed a crime against the people of Kirkuk was facing justice in Kirkuk.”

Coming under fire

Located at an Iraqi Army base called K1, the new court is situated at the second most secure location in the province. Still, the hazards traveling to and from the base were formidable. “Two or three times a week, we would go to K1 to monitor progress,” Keeton says. “This involved first donning heavy protective gear and loading [our] individual weapons.”

Moving as a four-vehicle military convoy, he and his team took roads where military and civilians were routinely killed by insurgent attacks. Vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices were a threat, so each time Keeton and his fellow officers exited the base, they left from a different gate. “We didn’t want to set a pattern for insurgents to be able to track us. We were a convoy with a bubble around us—so no other vehicles could enter.”

An investigative system

 Court house opening ceremony
Keeton (soldier at right) poses with a colleague and local children at the opening ceremony for a new courthouse.

The Iraqi legal system is a relatively modern one, with some established guidelines, and others still in development, a by-product of a newly created constitution. The right to legal counsel during pre-trial, for example, is a modification to the system after Saddam Hussein was removed from power.

Similarly, court-appointed attorneys are now available for defendants who do not hire their own. The country has had a secular, modern, criminal justice system in place for 40 years. The penal code, established in 1969, predates Saddam Hussein’s sovereignty.

One of the key differences between the Iraqi judicial system and that of the U.S., Keeton says, is in the phases of investigation prior to an actual trial. The first phase of investigating a crime is conducted by the police Major Crimes Unit (MCU), and the next phase is conducted by an investigative judge, whose team of lawyers thoroughly examines charges, evidence, and witnesses. “By the time a case gets to the Central Criminal Court,” Keeton points out, “guilt or innocence has pretty much been established.”

Diplomacy required

Keeton on a mountaintop
On a mountaintop, with the city of Sulaimaniya below.

In addition to his role as military officer and project manager, Keeton sometimes had to play the part of diplomat. The city of Kirkuk, Keeton points out, is an ethnically mixed city of Arab, Kurd, Turkomen and Assyrian Christians. Sulaimaniya province, however, just north of Kirkuk, falls into the Kurdish Regional Government in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan; the Kurdish secret police, the Asayish, had arrested many Arabs arbitrarily, imprisoning them with little or no due process, Keeton says.

“We used our influence with Kurdish officials in Sulaimaniya to agree to have Arab detainee cases reviewed by an ethnically-mixed panel of Iraqi judges, and to abide by their findings. We really had to convince various civilian officials—the provincial governor, judges, police chiefs, prison wardens—that what we wanted to do was in their best interest.”



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