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Fern Holland, a 33-year-old Oklahoma attorney, was hitting her stride in Iraq. She had helped establish women’s learning centers and promoted the women’s rights sections of the Iraqi constitution. But despite her accomplishments, it was her death in a roadside ambush that drew national attention to her efforts. Holland, from Tulsa, worked for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the group in charge of occupied Iraq. On March 9, she was driving with two colleagues to the CPA’s southern regional headquarters in Hilla, Iraq, 60 miles south of Baghdad, when she was fatally shot. Her death, along with those of her collaborator and interpreter Salwa Oumashi, 38, an Iraqi woman, and press officer Robert Zangas, 44, marked the first time that CPA employees were killed in guerrilla attacks in Iraq. Colleagues who remembered Holland said that she could have been a top trial lawyer, but instead used her talents to help advance human rights in impoverished nations. A 1996 honors graduate of the University of Tulsa College of Law, Holland worked at the Tulsa litigation firms Barkley & Rodolf and later Conners & Winters before joining the Peace Corps. Jim Green, the partner at Conners & Winters, who hired Holland described her as a “rising star.” “She had the natural attributes plus the high intelligence to be an outstanding trial lawyer,” said Green. Holland made her early career in civil litigation defense. At Barkley, she worked on medical malpractice and insurance cases. At Conners, she worked with Green on personal injury, products liability and nursing home negligence. “Fern was very persuasive and well versed in medical issues,” said Green. “When you met her, you knew you were meeting someone special.” The firm was disappointed to see her go in May 2000 when she left for the Peace Corps. Her service took her to Namibia, in southwestern Africa, where she gained experience that she would later put to use in Iraq. She helped develop HIV education programs, teacher training workshops and legal education targeting women and children. After the 9/11 attacks, the Peace Corps recalled her to the United States due to safety concerns. She then began working on an LL.M. degree in international law at Georgetown University, to further her efforts in human rights. She never finished the degree, however, because she kept interrupting her schooling to tackle interim human rights projects. In the fall of 2002, Holland went to work in refugee camps in Guinea, in west Africa. She was helping to educate Guinea lawyers and draft penal laws to protect refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia from exploitation. In May 2003, Holland informed her family that was going to Iraq to collect evidence of human rights violations for possible future prosecutions. One year later, a copy of Holland’s report on mass graves was sent to every member of Congress and discussed on the House floor last week. Produced with Joel Starr, a lawyer and legislative director at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the report estimates that 400,000 bodies lie in 270 mass graves dug during the reign of Saddam Hussein. According to Starr, 85% of the report was written by Holland. In a taped conversation, she documented the tragedy of three women left for dead in the graves who agreed to tell their story. “It is a tribute to Fern that she earned the trust of these women so that proper documentation can be made, not only for the war crimes tribunal, but to begin the healing,” Starr said. From USAID, Holland was hired by the CPA to its general staff. Having built close contacts with Iraqi women, she became involved with setting up centers to provide job training and education. “Fern’s theory was that education on the rule of law was the best way to arm people with the tools necessary to make a democracy work,” Green said. “She told us in e-mails that Iraqi women were hungry for freedom.” Iraq and women’s rights What Holland didn’t tell Green, or many of those she kept in contact with via e-mail, is that she was playing an instrumental role in the adoption of the women’s rights section of the Iraqi constitution. Noah Feldman, a professor at New York University School of Law and the CPA’s former constitutional advisor, credits Holland with keeping the CPA and Iraqis focused on women’s rights. “It was largely through her efforts that issues of women’s voting were foremost in the minds of the people writing the constitution,” said Feldman, now an informal advisor to the governing council members. The constitution, which was signed on March 8, provides a target of 25% women in Iraq’s future government. “It’s an enormous victory,” said Feldman. “Can you imagine if we had 25% in the U.S.? It would change the composition of the House and Senate overnight.” For some, Fern Holland will be remembered as the very best example of American jurisprudence. “Fern represents what a lot of us wish we could be,” said Green. “We do our pro bono time and give to the proper charities, but Fern put it all on the line.” McAree’s e-mail address is [email protected].

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