The process of extraditing an individual convicted of corruption who has been on the run since 2004, has suddenly become a focus of electoral debate in Iraq. Some have tried to use this issue as election propaganda, especially since the timing of the extradition occurred months after the suspect was arrested at Amman Airport in Jordan. A statement issued by Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s press office made this connection.
Apart from this debate, the fundamental question remains related to the inability of Iraq’s state agencies to prosecute those accused of corruption and recover funds lost in the process. The 2017 Annual Report of the Iraqi Commission of Integrity, which is one of three bodies tasked with combatting corruption — the Inspector General’s Office and the Federal Board of Supreme Audit being the other two — reveals the existence of 421 cases of fugitive extraditions. These people were charged in absentia. There are also 52 cases related to the recovery of smuggled funds.
Examining the figures presented in the report also reveals that 347 cases related to fugitive extradition were closed, either because the suspects turned themselves in, objected to the in absentia ruling, were covered by the amnesty law, or their departure from Iraqi territory had not been proven. This means that the stated number of extradition cases may also be included in these procedures at a later stage, and that the suspects who turned themselves in may also be covered by the amnesty law and may be free soon.
The Commission of Integrity’s report revealed that 3,542 people were covered by the 2016 amnesty law last year. It also indicated that the estimated funds involved in corruption cases that were closed in accordance with this law was about $200 million. Meanwhile, the amount of recovered funds is estimated at less than $20 million. In other words, around 90 per cent of the embezzled funds have been lost completely to the state under this law.
This is not the first time that we are facing such a paradox; the 2008 amnesty law saw the loss of billions of dollars in public funds. According to the figures in the Commission’s 2009 report, 2,772 people were accused of corruption but covered by this law. The total amount of embezzled funds estimated in just 173 cases out of 1,552 corruption cases altogether was more than $1.2 billion; when extrapolated, the figure is much higher.
Despite the explicit and repeated calls to combat corruption, the facts on the ground have proven time and time again that there is no genuine political will to do anything. Corruption in Iraq is not only the abuse of a public position for personal gain, but also, and increasingly, an accepted part of the state structure. It has become a public phenomenon that has been able to legitimise itself politically, socially and religiously in various forms. The amnesty laws of 2008 and 2016 that have been used to protect corrupt individuals are indicators in this context.
Transparency International has identified five key areas for combating corruption: leadership, public programmes, government reorganisation, public awareness and the establishment of anti-corruption institutions. Establishing these institutions with the authority and processes only represents the last step in the fight against corruption. However, the situation in Iraq is the complete opposite, as there was a formal promotion of the belief that the mere existence of the Commission of Integrity, Inspector General’s office, and the Federal Board of Supreme Audit would be enough to change the systematic corruption in the country.
However, the political will just isn’t there to do anything in practice, nor are the legal and administration reorganisation programmes. And there is still an inability to access official information, which is considered a fundamental factor for combating corruption; the right to access public information still doesn’t register with the Iraqi political elites. Furthermore, the three bodies responsible for detecting and combatting corruption suffer from structural flaws and the laws that govern them. All of this has made the process of combatting corruption a bit of a futile exercise.
The fugitive handed over to Iraq by Jordan, as well as the previous extradition of a fugitive handed over by Lebanon, served in senior positions in the Iraqi government after 2003. The first served as the secretary-general of the Iraqi Ministry of Defence while the second served as the Minister of Trade between 2006 and 2009. These two men should not be turned into scapegoats at the altar of integrity. Instead, their investigation should be the real beginning of the exposure of the network of corruption that allowed them to do what they did, starting with the process of their appointment and the contexts that allowed them to bypass the procedures carried out by the Commission of Integrity, Inspector General’s office or the Federal Board of Supreme Audit.
We must also look into the circumstances that enabled them to flee as well as the circumstances allowing them to elude Interpol for so long (14 years for the former and 9 years for the latter). If this is done, the Iraqi government can start to get a grip on corruption and perhaps even combat it effectively at a later stage if it finds the political will to do so.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 19 April 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.