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(London) - Iraq's flagship criminal court is failing to meet basic international fair trial and due process standards, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The report urges the government to take immediate steps to protect detainees from the possibility of torture and other abuse and to ensure that detainees will have access to counsel and a prompt hearing.

The 42-page report, "The Quality of Justice: Failings of Iraq's Central Criminal Court," documents how thousands of defendants in Iraq wait months or even years before facing a judge and hearing charges against them in the Central Criminal Court (CCCI), and cannot pursue a meaningful defense or challenge evidence against them. A US-Iraq security agreement that takes effect at year's end will transfer detainees held by the US-led Multinational Force to Iraqi jurisdiction, adding to the court's cases.

"Iraqis who come before this court cannot expect justice," said Joe Stork, Middle East and North Africa deputy director for Human Rights Watch. "Security problems, lack of resources, and heavy caseloads all play into it, but these failures are serious and systematic, undermining any notion that the central court is meeting basic fair trial standards."

The report documents the court's reliance on evidence from secret informants and confessions likely to have been coerced. Court testimony and interviews indicated that abuse in detention, frequently with the aim of extracting confessions, is widespread.

The report also documents cases in which defendants had been had held for up to two years without a judicial hearing. When hearings did occur, defense counsel typically had little or no access to detainees or their case files prior to hearings, and few offered an active defense.

In May 2008, Human Rights Watch attended more than 70 investigative hearings and several trials at the court, and interviewed Iraqi judges, lawyers, defendants, and officials. Human Rights Watch also met with US military officials, who refer some detainees in US custody to the court for prosecution.

Iraqi judges often acknowledged these failings, and dismissed cases accordingly. But the number of cases including allegations of abuse and lengthy delays before hearings suggested frequent miscarriages of justice.

The US-led Coalition Provisional Authority established the court following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, granting it nationwide jurisdiction and a mandate focused on security-related cases within the framework of Iraqi criminal law.

"The failings of the court are all the more disturbing because this court is supposed to serve as a model for Iraq," Stork said.

Structural problems affecting Iraq's institutions have undermined the court's proceedings. Mass arrests in US and Iraqi military operations during the "surge" in 2007 swelled Iraq's detainee population. Delayed and partial implementation has limited the impact of an Iraqi general amnesty law intended in part to ease the burden on the justice system. As a result, the court's case burden remains heavy, further delaying judicial review of detentions, and compounding flaws when cases finally do reach the investigative and trial stages.

Human Rights Watch urged the Iraqi government to take immediate steps to: disallow confessions and other evidence obtained through torture and other unlawful methods, and condemn publicly any use of torture in pretrial detention; ensure that family members and legal counsel have access to detainees on a timely basis; and guarantee counsel prompt access to case files. Human Rights Watch also called upon Iraqi authorities to ensure that those detained are brought before an investigative judge within 24 hours of arrest, in conformity with Iraq's Code of Criminal Procedure, and to release or charge with a specific criminal offense all persons currently held without charge.

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