Invasion of the Lawyers

By O'Neill, Brendan | The Spectator, July 10, 2004 | Go to article overview

Invasion of the Lawyers


O'Neill, Brendan, The Spectator


Whatever you think about democracy and human rights, the Coalition successfully imported one thing from the West into post-Saddam Iraq-the compensation culture.

Iraq has become a hotbed of legal claims and counterclaims, of individual complaints and class action lawsuits, for everything from physical and mental injury to destruction of property. Iraqis demand compensation for damage caused to their gardens by American tanks, or for the scrapes and dents to their cars caused by run-ins with speeding Humvees. American soldiers have threatened to sue the US military for exposing them to death and injury by terrorist attack, while British soldiers want compensation for injuries sustained in friendly fire incidents. Ambulance-chasing (or perhaps Humvee-chasing) human rights lawyers are everywhere in Iraq, encouraging Iraqis to sue, sue, sue. Where Iraq - following the handover of sovereignty - was supposed to be a showcase for liberation, it has in fact become the latest outpost in the West's decadent culture of blaming and claiming, where individuals seek to blame somebody or some authority for every misfortune, whether minor or major, that befalls them.

This week Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the government lawyer who resigned from the Foreign Office weeks after the first tanks rolled into Iraq last March, claimed that Coalition troops have been granted immunity from prosecution that is 'without precedent'; she said that Iraqis who are injured or abused by the Coalition have little legal comeback and are often denied financial restitution. In fact, one reason why the departing Coalition has reportedly done a deal with the new interim government to limit future claims for compensation is precisely because of the burgeoning litigious climate in Iraq, where for the past 16 months demands for compensation, whether formal or informal, have become one of the few means through which Iraqis have been able to challenge the occupying powers.

Some see this as a positive development, as evidence that Iraqis have been 'empowered' to hold their invaders - the departing Coalition, who patently are responsible for so much Iraqi misfortune - to account. But litigation is a sorry substitute for liberation. Indeed, the contemporary culture of complaint and compensation, brought to Iraq courtesy of the West, is a whole world away from true democracy.

Some of the most infamous incidents of the past few months have ended in legal wrangling. Ahmed Chalabi, Washington's former stooge who fell out of favour with the Americans after it was discovered that he had allegedly been passing sensitive info to the Iranians, is threatening to sue over the US military's 'humiliating' dawn raid on his home in Baghdad in May. Chalabi wants 'financial restitution' for the raid, during which, according to his Boston-based lawyers Markham & Read, US forces and Iraqi police committed acts of vandalism, behaved in a marauding fashion, and 'consumed food and beverages from Dr Chalabi's refrigerator'.

Iraqis who have a little more to complain about than Chalabi are also gearing up to sue. Officials at the US Department of Defense say the Pentagon is braced for an 'influx' of compensation claims stemming from the charges of abuse at Abu Ghraib. Indeed the Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld seemed to pave the way for such claims when he announced in early May that he was 'seeking a way to provide appropriate compensation to those detainees who suffered grievous and brutal abuse. . . . It's the right thing to do.' Iraqis quickly took up his offer. An Iraqi-born Swedish citizen, identified only as Mr Saleh, is suing the US military for $100,000 in a court in Michigan, where he is staying with relatives; he claims to be the hooded prisoner in the photograph with Lynndie England pointing at his genitals.

A class action lawsuit has been filed by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights and a Philadelphia-based law firm, on behalf of other Iraqis who claim to have been abused in US custody, against two private American firms, Titan Corporation and CACI International. …

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