By Aseel Kami
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi lawyer Ahmed al-Abadi put up with years of threatening phone calls for taking on sensitive sectarian cases but, after he narrowly escaped death when three shots were fired at his car last year, he could take no more.
Abadi had just finished successfully defending a woman accused of involvement in a sectarian killing and he thinks this was the reason behind the gun attack - but he decided against seeking legal redress.
"I did not go to the police station to report it. I knew it would not get me anywhere," he said, seated in the lawyers' room of Rusafa appeal court in eastern Baghdad. "It has affected me mentally and sapped my enthusiasm for work. I started to handle only easy cases which do not cause me problems."
After years of vicious sectarian strife between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, individual cases are increasingly coming to court. But justice suffers because lawyers are an easy target in a country where rule of law remains weak, tribal loyalties take precedence and sectarian armed groups still operate.
Abadi is one of many lawyers who have suffered constant threats and intimidation from relatives of the accused or the plaintiff. Lawyers come into contact with both sides of a case and they must appear in court, where everyone can see their faces. Lawyers say some judges treat them as if they were involved in the crime simply because they defend the accused.
"We are very sensitive about terrorism cases," the 55-year-old Abadi said, employing the term regularly used to describe sectarian cases in Iraq.
"After taking more than one terrorist case, I quit," he said as he removed his robe after attending the guilty verdict in a corruption case of two clients who worked in a government-spending watchdog.
RISING LAWYER DEATH TOLL
Sectarian warfare plagued Iraq in 2006-7, when death squads, insurgents and militias claimed thousands of victims.
Violence is no longer an around-the-clock menace but remains common. At least 116 people were killed and about 300 wounded in bomb and gun attacks on July 23 - by far the bloodiest day since U.S. troops withdrew in December, eight years after the invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
And tensions between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims still run high as politicians feud over power-sharing in government.
Practicing law is often a life-threatening profession.
Iraq's lawyers syndicate says 103 lawyers were killed between 2003-2008 but the actual number could be double that since not all cases are reported. The syndicate, which has 50,000 members, lacks figures on victims for after 2008.
Abadi defended a woman who was accused with her husband of kidnapping and killing her husband's friend, a Shi'ite, when he visited them in their home in a Sunni district of Baghdad.
The couple said gunmen had broken into their house and kidnapped the guest, but the victim's relatives accused them of the crime. Abadi, who was the woman's lawyer, won the case and his client was released from prison.
Shortly afterwards three gunmen in a BMW car opened fire at him when he was driving and three bullets whizzed past his head, shattering the window. He stopped his car, and they thought he was dead and drove away.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the judiciary faces enormous pressure in Iraq, particularly lawyers when intimidation, including threats through text messages, is a fact of life.
"The lack of security allows lawyers to be threatened particularly if they take on sensitive cases and those who make threats are able to do so with impunity," Samer Muscati, a researcher at the New York-based watchdog, said.
'SIR, LEAVE THIS CASE ALONE'
Thair al-Qassim, a Baghdad-based specialist in sectarian cases, said he has been threatened 32 times.
His son was kidnapped and beaten severely in 2006 and only freed when Qassim paid a $40,000 ransom. He was kidnapped briefly himself in 2009 after militiamen targeted his car, interrogated him and told him to stop covering certain cases. He managed to escape unharmed.
Qassim has endured hand grenade attacks, threatening phone calls and text messages and a letter thrown into his garden.
"All that because I defend Sunnis against Shi'ites or Shi'ites against Sunnis," Qassim said.
"When I defend a client who is from the Sunni sect...someone from the other side, the Shi'ite side, calls me and says 'Sir, leave this case, otherwise you will face regrettable consequences' - and vice versa."
But Qassim said he did not abandoned these cases because this is how he earns his living.
He was part of the defense team for an Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at then-U.S. President George W. Bush in December 2008. He received a phone call from someone telling him to drop the case or he or his family would be killed.
It proved an empty threat - but it sticks in his mind.
Apart from the threats, lawyers say they are often prevented from meeting clients, who undergo lengthy interrogations. The Iraqi legal system is especially slow and bureaucratic.
According to Iraqi criminal law, arrested people should be presented to a judge in 24 hours, but this rarely happens in practice, lawyer Farhan al-Bighani said. "They should not stay at the mercy of a police officer for a month or longer just because he wants to extract a confession."
Abdul-Sattar al-Birqdar, spokesman for the Supreme Judicial Council, said lawyers could present their complaints and the council would take legal procedures in such cases.
Lawyers complain some judges are under political pressure, make decisions based on sectarian or tribal affiliations or are corrupt, charges rejected by the Supreme Judicial Council which says judges are independent, and not politically affiliated.
In one of Iraq's most high-profile and contested cases, Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni politician in the Iraqiya bloc, says he is being targeted in a legal investigation partially because of sectarianism.
Hashemi fled Baghdad in December when the Shi'ite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sought his arrest on charges that he ran a death squad.
Hashemi has said he is ready to face trial, but not in a Baghdad court, which he believes is under the sway of Maliki in a judicial system tainted by political bias.
Maliki's allies say the Hashemi trial is not political. But many Iraqi Sunnis say they see a sectarian hand behind the case, accusing Maliki of shoring up his position at their expense.
Lawyers and Human Rights Watch criticized a government campaign in November to arrest Baathists and former military officers who authorities maintained had plotted to oust Maliki one month before the departure of U.S. troops.
Maliki said more than 600 people had been arrested on evidence that they sought to undermine security in Iraq.
"We have spoken to lawyers and the families of detainees who said they would not take on these types of cases because it would put the lawyers at risk," HRW's Muscati said.
For lawyer Abadi who dodged the bullets, the lawyers syndicate is not doing enough to defend his profession. He even laments that lawyers cannot be armed to defend themselves.
"The lawyer is in the courtyard, fighting alone," he said.
(Editing by Sylvia Westall and Mark Heinrich)