Ten days after Mahmoud Shakir Mohsen arrested a member of the religious militia, the religious militia arrested him. "They told me, 'Your time is over,'" says the police sergeant. "'Now it's our time.'" Bound and blindfolded, Mohsen was taken to the Islamic courts of Muqtada al-Sadr, the most militant cleric in the holy city of Najaf, where he was beaten with a police baton and held in an underground prison for 16 days, until his commanding officer negotiated a $200 fee for his release.
As the police struggle to preserve order in Iraq, some Islamic groups like al-Sadr's religious militia, Jaish al-Mahdi, are declaring themselves guardians of peace and justice. Many groups keep private armies, but al-Sadr's men also maintain courts and prisons in eight southern Iraqi cities and Baghdad. Religious militia have shut down liquor stores in Basra and Baghdad and even killed some of their owners. In Najaf, CD sellers accused of peddling pornography have had their shops bombed. The court's claim of religious sanction is particularly potent in Najaf, where portraits of religious leaders have replaced statues of Saddam Hussein. While al-Sadr's critics may whisper that his courts are more concerned with stamping out the cleric's enemies than with doing God's work, few dare say it aloud. "The most important man in Najaf can't say no to this court," says Saeed Tryak al-Jubori, a senior police officer in the city.
And so plaintiffs and defendants traipse up a dirt-packed alleyway in Najaf to a courtyard filled with women draped in black and men wearing suit jackets over religious robes. Trials are held in small, barren rooms where judges and supplicants sit on the floor. Though most cases involve family law and property disputes, the court also handles criminal charges, according to Husam al-Husseini, 33, a confidant of al-Sadr's. People caught drinking or having sex outside of marriage are punished with a whip. Christians face the same penalties as Muslims. "Iraq is an Islamic country, so if he is Muslim or not, we have to beat him," al-Husseini says. Violent criminals are usually forced to pay compensation to the victim's family.
Prisoners are held in individual rooms under the courtyard or in a large holding pen, according to a former detainee who asked not to be named for fear of being rearrested. For nearly a week, he slept on a woven plastic mat in a cell so small he couldn't stretch out. Air entered from a pipe in the ceiling, but there was no light. On his first night, he was pulled out of the cell, blindfolded and led to a room where he was strapped to a column. Two men, he says, beat him with a whip, then smashed his head against the column. He says that beatings took place nightly, and that he sometimes heard the screams of women. Neighbors of Qisme Ibrahim al-Quraishi say she turned up dead 10 days after she was arrested for letting prostitutes use her home. When her family cleaned her for burial, they found lash marks on her back and raw flesh where her fingernails had been.