Two former high-ranking Shiite government officials charged with kidnapping and killing scores of Sunnis were ordered released Monday after prosecutors dropped the case. The abrupt move renewed concerns about the willingness of Iraq's leaders to act against sectarianism and cast doubts on U.S. efforts to build an independent judiciary.
The collapse of the trial stunned American and Iraqi officials who had spent more than a year assembling the case, which they said included a wide array of evidence.
"This shows that the judicial system in Iraq is horribly broken," said a U.S. legal adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly. "And it sends a terrible signal: If you are Shia, then no worries; you can do whatever you want and nothing is going to happen to you."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's decision to allow the case to proceed to trial was considered a significant step toward proving his Shiite-led government could hold Shiite officials accountable for sectarian crimes. The case was heard at the multimillion-dollar Rule of Law Complex, protected and supervised by the United States, which has said that the development of an impartial justice system is essential to Iraq's long-term stability.
On Monday a three-judge panel ordered the former Health Ministry officials released after a prosecutor unexpectedly asked that the charges be dismissed for lack of evidence. The request caught U.S. officials off guard and came on the second day of what was expected to be at least a four-day trial; evidence had been presented completely on only some of the allegations against the defendants.