Last year, the US military built a heavily-fortified compound in Baghdad to protect judges and to secure the trials of criminal suspects. Peter Collins, best known as a former NSW Opposition leader but also an independent director at HostPlus, volunteered to help.

A reserve officer in the Australian navy and former NSW attorney-general, Collins signed up for a three-month term, from July through to October 2007, assisting Iraq’s judiciary to trial and process prisoners. “It was an extraordinary insight into the trouble spot that is in our lounge rooms every night,” says Collins. The Rule of Law (RoL) complex in Rufasa was devised by General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, to protect judges, their families and prisoners as trials were conducted and suspects released.

Between the US declaration of ‘victory’ in 2003 until early 2007, 30 Iraqi judges had been assassinated. Occasionally their families were also targeted. “Petraeus wanted to provide a protected environment in which judges could work and prisoners could be processed. The system at that time wasn’t able to function.”

But the RoL also strengthened Iraq’s judicial processes by keeping a database of prisoners with digital photographs and fingerprints, and installing closed-circuit television in courtrooms. The Iraqi government, too, became subject to the rule of law, unlike the previous regime. “Our role was to assist Iraqi judicial officials without influencing the outcomes of cases. The situation has stabilised. Judges are being kept alive and prisoners are being processed in ways that weren’t possible previously.”

Many prisoners need to be protected upon release as they can become quickly ensnared in sectarian violence. The complex was built at the same time that the planned ‘surge’ of 20,000 extra US troops into Baghdad was underway. During this time, prisoners were absorbed into the RoL “as fast as facilities could be built for them,” Collins says.

Many prisoners were taken in from the scene of terrorist attacks, such as vehicle bombings. “A lot were innocent, but the Iraqis would take them in and sort out who was of interest.” The number of prisoners processed through the RoL increased from 2,500 to 7,000 in three months that Collins was there. His Australian legal team was not permitted to work on cases that involved the death penalty.

The complex was staffed by the Law and Order Taskforce, an official body comprised of US military lawyers, police and investigators, British forensic experts and the Australian legal team: Collins, air force wing commander John Deveraux and lieutenant colonel Russell Pearce.

Rusafa is situated between the Tigris River, Sadr City and the Green Zone in Baghdad. The Australians were kept within the complex during their time there and were transported to and from it by helicopter. The RoL in Rusafa was a prototype for other such centres in Iraq. A second was under construction when Collins was leaving Iraq, and another four have been planned.

Six weeks after Collins left the RoL it was attacked by a rocket assault. Eight prisoners were killed and 11 were injured. The situation still has a long way to improve, but good on HostPlus for relieving Collins of director duties while he went and did his bit to help.

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