Iraqi political leaders should revise the new Accountability and Justice Law to assure basic guarantees of fairness, focus on individual acts rather than group affiliation, and limit the scope for politicized abuse, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Iraq’s Presidency Council. Human Rights Watch urged the council’s three leaders to follow through on their pledge to seek needed amendments to the law.

Iraq’s parliament on January 12, 2008 approved the Accountability and Justice Law, which replaces the de-Ba’athification procedures initiated in 2003 under the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to root the Ba’ath Party out of Iraq’s government and public institutions. Many Iraqi critics argued that under Iraq’s Shi`a-dominated governments the former De-Ba’athification Commission focused disproportionately on Sunnis without regard to their actual involvement in human rights abuses under the rule of Saddam Hussein. The new law allows for appeal of de-Ba’athification rulings and acknowledges the importance of individual responsibility. Yet, flaws in the law remain. It still fails to provide the accused with access to the evidence used in barring them from state employment or pension rights and leaves implementation of the law open to politically motivated abuse.

“Personal responsibility for wrongdoing, not mere party affiliation or group membership, should be the sole basis for excluding individuals from official positions,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “But when people can’t see the evidence against them, the new law remains inherently unfair and won’t serve the reconciliation Iraqi leaders say they seek.”

Iraq’s Presidency Council, which consists of the president of the republic and the two vice presidents, and must approve legislation passed by parliament, announced on February 3 that the law had been approved. The council, whose Sunni Arab member had objected to provisions of the law, said it had been approved automatically because the period for its review had passed. In a statement quoted in media, the council alluded to the possibility of further revisions, saying that the law in its present form would obstruct national reconciliation.

“The law is considered approved,” the statement said, “with the hope of amendment soon, after a complete assessment and agreement on the articles which need review, amendment or cancellation.”

Key provisions of the law establish a Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice in charge of implementing regulations on access to civil sector employment and pensions for former Ba’ath Party members. The law allows party members at the level of “udw firqa,” a mid-level rank barred from state employment under the earlier de-Ba’athification measures, to return to public employment, and extends pensions to more of those dismissed from the civil service. It would also pension off all functionaries of Ba’ath-era security agencies now working as state employees, and bar members of the Fedayeen Saddam, a Ba’ath-era paramilitary group, from pensions altogether. Further, the law stipulates that anyone found to have committed crimes against the Iraqi people or stolen public funds would lose the right to reinstatement or a pension.

The law also provides for the establishment of a Cassation Body to hear appeals of the Commission’s rulings and a prosecutor’s office to investigate crimes allegedly committed by party members. However, it does not provide those barred from civil service employment access to the evidence that formed the basis of their dismissal or loss of pension under de-Ba’athification procedures.

“The new law’s provision making individual acts and not group affiliation a basis for dismissal is welcome, but those who do face dismissal should know the accusations against them and be able to respond,” said Stork.

Human Rights Watch asked the Presidency Council to call for amendments to remedy the law’s failings by providing individuals access to evidence used against them. The Presidency Council approves appointments to the council charged with implementing the law, and should ensure that competence and professional integrity, rather than political affiliation and sectarian/ethnic identity, are the criteria for appointments. The procedure outlined in the law for selecting the Commission’s members – reflecting the weight of Iraq’s religious/ethnic “constituents” – should be revised to emphasize competence over political and sectarian affiliation. It should also seek to introduce an end date for the operation of the Commission, in order to limit the potential for future politically motivated dismissals.

Human Rights Watch also recommended extending the period in which a person can apply for reinstatement to public sector employment and pension benefits, and for processing of appeals. The new law provides that those who wish to exercise rights to a pension or return to work must apply formally within 60 days of the law taking effect – 90 days if they reside abroad – or lose their right to do so.

Human Rights Watch also called on the office of the prosecutor to be separated from the Commission to ensure that it does not generate the sorts of politically-motivated accusations that characterized the operation of the initial De-Ba’athification Commission.