Insurgents convicted of serious weapons and explosives offences in Iraq are escaping with jail terms of as little as six months under the country's new court system.>
To the dismay of both coalition forces and the new Iraqi government, people found to have hoarded or transported huge stashes of bombs, machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades are frequently being treated as leniently as drunk drivers and pickpockets.
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Concern is now growing among United States forces that the country's new central criminal court, made up of many judges from the Saddam Hussein era, is being lenient to demonstrate its independence from the coalition.
Some Shia judges have even complained privately that their Sunni colleagues are giving out light sentences to Sunni defendants to show a degree of sympathy with the insurgents.
While coalition commanders are anxious to be seen to respect the judges' independence, a senior US officer involved in liaising with the court told The Telegraph of his concern that it did not pose a deterrent.
Lt Col Barry Johnson, a spokesman for US military detainee operations in Iraq, said: "There are times when the sentences are a source of frustration for the soldiers involved, but we have committed ourselves to re-specting the independence of the court and the decisions it makes. But this is a frustration shared by other parts of the Iraqi government."
The court, which sits in tight security in a former museum next to Baghdad's Green Zone, is Iraq's equivalent of the Old Bailey. It deals with many cases brought with the help of US troops.
While a handful of defendants over the past year have received prison terms of up to 30 years, a list of decisions for last December, the most recent available, showed much lighter sentences.
One defendant, Adnan Tawfeeh Hamde, arrested after US soldiers found 11 rocket-propelled grenades, 12 assault rifles, 5,000 rounds of ammunition and a bag of explosives at his house, received one year in prison, as did two men caught in their car with a 155mm artillery shell and detonator, common equipment for making roadside bombs.
One senior judge, who asked not to be named, said: "The penalty for possession of illegal weapons under Iraqi law is anything up to 30 years. Six months is supposed to be for someone found with an old pistol or something. Anybody caught with rockets or missiles should be looking at 10 years at least.
"Many of the judges are Sunnis from the old Saddam regime and, even though the insurgents are trying to kill them now, they still don't like sentencing their Sunni brothers to long stints in jail. How will we get law and order if these people are allowed back out so soon?"
He said that at least one judge had complained about the light sentencing to the Iraqi judicial council and to the American forces, but to no effect. Privately, US officials say the lenient sentencing presents them with a difficulty in combating the insurgency, with some de-fendants spending less time in prison serving their sentence than they do on remand awaiting trial.
Madhat al Mahmoud, the president of the judicial council, declined to discuss sentencing policy. "I cannot say whether a sentence is appropriate or not, without examining each case in detail," he said. "We have a good judicial system and we have to respect it."By Colin Freeman in Baghdad
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