Iraqi judges train in Prague to better understand their role in a democratic society

Some 50 Iraqi judges came to Prague this September for a two-week seminar on the work of judges in a democratic society. Run by the Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative, the seminar was largely funded by the British government, with assistance from the Czech government, as part of the Czech Foreign Ministry's involvement in aiding the transition in Iraq. Due to security concerns, the timing of the seminars was kept quiet and the media asked to keep news of the visit under embargo.

Two hundred Iraqi judges will be trained in Prague over the next two years. CEELI Institute executive director Michael Diedring and project manager Barbara Hillas discuss the program's aims.

Michael Diedring: "We were running a course that we've taught before in other parts of the world on judging in a democratic society. The Iraqis were chosen based upon discussions we've had with the Chief Justice of Iraq and they represented all different areas, both the Muslim [Shiite, Sunni] and also the Kurdish areas of Iraq. And they were primarily senior level judges, from the initial trial court all the way up to the highest court."

How would you describe the Iraqi legal system now? It must be very much in transition.

Barbara Hillas: "They are changing some things, but it is a relatively stable legal system. What these judges were being exposed to here is the concept of a totally independent judiciary. And so they were being introduced to things that the West takes for granted but in Iraq - because of the obvious history - they were not independent."

Back to the training. What's 'Day One' like and how do you introduce them to the subject?

BH: "The first day was basically setting out the parameters of what is expected from the participant, primarily, the fact that they were not going to be 'trained' by the instructors. That this was going to be a two-way street: The instructors would show what international standards were and the Iraqi judges would show us - the instructors and the [CEELI] Institute - what they had been going through."

MD: "And part of what we are hoping to accomplish with the course is to introduce - to what had been a closed judicial society - some of the concepts, some of the international laws on human rights, some of the leading changes in court administration and how to make the court system work more efficiently, how to assist the judges in dealing with the press because that was an issue that did not come up in the past. And to look at some of those very practical things, the skills and information that judges need when they go from a regime that is controlled to an open, or more open, regime, in which the judge has a very important role to play in society."

MD: "They are also, as judges and representatives of their country, very interested in learning more about how things happen in the West or outside of their area. And I think it's quite important that the training take place here, in Prague. Although this is a society that has gone through a very different type of transition, it is nonetheless a society that has gone through a transition, and there are parallels here that are very important and that we were able to draw upon."

And did the judges share their concerns on security at home? Have they told of being threatened and so on?

MD: "It's incredible in the context of the training to see their courageousness, to try to understand the position that these judges are in, not only for their own personal safety, but obviously, given the current situation in the country, they had concerns over the safety of their families and their loved ones in the way that all citizens of Iraq are concerned about that. If court rooms and judges cannot be protected, then the system breaks down at a very practical level."

BH: "At the farewell ceremony, the graduation ceremony, here that [Czech] Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda attended, at one point the senior American judge, the instructor, was giving his farewell address and choked up, could not say anything more. It was unbelievable to see the reaction of the Iraqi judges. There was not a single one who had dry eyes."

Could you elaborate a bit on how the Czechs came to be involved in the project and the scope of Czech participation in it?

BH: "After all, the chairperson of the CEELI Institute is Jirina Novakova, a Czech, and the fit was really quite good because the Foreign Ministry has set up a 'transition department' that specifically has monies to projects involving the Iraqi transition. The proviso is that the financial support that the Czech government is going to be giving goes directly to support Iraqis themselves."