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Last Updated: Monday, 2 February, 2004, 15:38 GMT
Tribal justice takes hold in Iraq
By Dumeetha Luthra
BBC, Basra

tribal leaders who are holding court to decide the compensation for a murder
Tribal leaders gather to decide on compensation for a murder case
As Iraqis wait for the establishment of a new constitution and judicial framework, so-called "tribal courts" are already administering rough justice in the south. Our correspondent has gone to see tribal justice in action.

On the side of a road in a ramshackle tent tribal elders have gathered for a court case, but it is not an ordinary law court, it's a tribal court.

Eventually the price is knocked down to $4,000 and a woman, whose value will be determined in later negotiations
Shoes are strewn outside and, inside, the elders sit resplendent in traditional garb.

The case defies logic - one brother has killed another, but the tribe they belonged to is blaming a rival tribe for the killing.

Their argument is that if there had not been a feud with the other tribe, the killing would not have taken place; they are now demanding $20,000 in blood money.

Over copious glasses of sugary tea it is all sorted out.

Not justice, but reparations

As one of the elders, Atahiya Barah Sajid al-Okeli, explains, generally the idea is that the cost of the settlement will ensure the offender won't offend again.

"If we make a decision nobody will dare do anything. We have a tribal system that says once there's a deal no tribe fights another," he says.

Tribal court in Basra
Justice is administered at tribal courts like this one in Basra
"If a criminal is fined he will not do it again; the fine is his punishment."

While he defends the tribal court, Sheikh Atahiya still wants the judicial system as a counterbalance, fearing that stronger tribes will always get the upper hand.

"Because there is no law and order the tribes have become very strong and so people take their rights through the tribal courts.

"We want law and government and justice. We don't want this to continue, because some tribes are stronger than others", he told BBC News Online.


In central Basra the authorities are reconstructing the old courthouse. It was looted and burned in the aftermath of the war last year.

Now along with fixing the courthouse the impetus is to set up a modern legal framework.

Sir Hilary Synott the head of the coalition authority here in the south says both the tribal and regular systems have to be carefully balanced and both must lead to justice.

"People can choose for themselves [and I] don't necessarily see them as incompatible. The key word is 'justice'," Sir Hilary explains.

"If the result is justice and promotes security, law and order," he says, "then that's fine".

But tribal justice a world away from the regular system.

Here before the daily round of trials law officers set out plastic chairs for a makeshift court. At the moment the venue is a meeting room in the temporary law courts.

In direct contrast to the tribal system there are only three judges and no jury.

'Justice for all'

Judge Khazal Daboal Kassam is adamant that tribal justice can only undermine the rule of law.

He laughs at the notion that blood money can possibly buy justice.

"[It is] difficult to put these two things together, justice is more than the money, because justice is for all the people the money is just for one person", Judge Kassam says.

At the tribal court, the discussion is heated, but not about guilt or innocence. Through a complex network of tribal support, both sides know where they stand, now it is just a matter of agreeing the money.

Eventually the price is knocked down to $4,000 and a woman, her value to be determined in later negotiations.

For many Iraqis it's a system that works, and in a violent region recompense appears much more practical than locking someone away.

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