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Barry Portman will soon be wandering in the rubble of Baghdad, helping piece together a new legal system for a country that has long been ruled by a dictatorship. Portman, the Northern District’s longtime federal public defender, has been chosen as one of a handful of American legal experts who will spend at least three months assessing the state of the justice system in Iraq, where the Code of Hammurabi, thought to be the first written laws, originated. The team will then make recommendations to American officials now running the country. Its mandate has not been formally announced, but Portman is packing his bags. He was asked to go late last week and is scheduled to depart sometime this weekend. The team is expected to include a half-dozen federal judges, some prosecutors, two or three court administrators and one other public defender. Portman said he hasn’t had time to bone up on Iraq’s laws or its judicial system. But he does have experience on similar missions. Portman said he has visited “about nine” countries to help assess their legal systems. And last year, he got something of a primer on Middle Eastern history — literally by accident. Portman was on his way to Scotland to visit his son, a student at the University of Edinburgh, when his son broke his back in a rock-climbing accident. Portman offered to sit in on his classes, including a course in Middle Eastern history taught by the British Ambassador to Kuwait during the first Gulf War. “I went to three or four classes — took terrific notes,” said Portman, adding that he became fascinated by the subject. “Education shouldn’t be wasted on the young.” Iraq, though, will be a crash course. Portman knows only the barest outline of his mandate and the roster of the legal advisory team is as apparently unsettled as the mission. “I don’t know much,” Portman said. A spokesman for the Department of Justice, which is coordinating the program along with the Department of Defense, would not release any specifics about the program. The spokesman said more may become clear later this week or early next. The DOD did not respond to questions by press time. U.S. Army lawyers are already assessing the legal system in Iraq, from its laws to its facilities, many of which have been bombed. Iraqi law is a mix of Western concepts (including a presumption of innocence in criminal cases) and Islamic law. But the fairness of the system under former President Saddam Hussein has been questioned. Many exiles say rulings turned more on bribes and fear than the rule of law. Others, however, insist that the system is fundamentally sound — if implemented fairly. Portman has seen similar situations in other countries. “My experience with these things is that the formal structure, in writing, doesn’t actually resemble what happens on the ground,” Portman said. Sometimes, he said, “You have to bribe your way to be prosecuted. Otherwise, you sit in jail for eight years.” Portman’s team will forward its findings to Jay Garner, a former Army general recently appointed as the civilian commander in Iraq. Geoffrey Hansen, the chief assistant federal public defender, will run the office while Portman is away.

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