Justice clashes with culture as dead are exhumed

To the American forensics team now digging for evidence of war crimes in a mass grave of 300 Iraqi Kurds, human remains might hold the key to long-awaited justice for Saddam Hussein and his fellow Baath Party leaders.

But to Muslims inside Iraq and beyond, a quest for justice may not warrant disruption of a gravesite, no matter how murderous the killing on that site may have been. That's because the needs of the new Iraqi court must be shown to trump another cultural priority - keeping a final resting place intact and undisturbed.

That's a high bar to clear.

"To open a grave is forbidden," says Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, acting chairman of the Islamic Law Council of North America. "If it is required for the public interest, then it can be allowed, but this requires a special decision [from local religious authorities].

"My general feeling is that most of the Muslims would not go for that, to expose the bones and all of that. They would want to do an investigation in other ways."

With Iraqi grave exhumations having begun Sept. 1 with minimal fanfare to ensure safety during the investigations, American researchers are treading on terrain that would be emotionally explosive for any nation still reeling from atrocities committed on its soil. From Poland to Bosnia to Congo, survivors of varied religious backgrounds have at times made a common plea: Our loved ones suffered enough in life. Let them at least have peace in death.

To be sure, the past two decades have seen many instances of cooperation between local families and foreign investigators who took up their grisly task with a United Nations mandate to learn the truth. Initial objections have at times morphed into support, as happened in Indonesia in the 1990s, according to William Haglund, director of the International Forensics Program at Physicians for Human Rights.

"All we needed there was for the imam to come and say a prayer at the site before we began," says Dr. Haglund, who has been leading mass grave exhumations since 1993 but refused to take part in Iraq. "Usually in any country, the needs of justice supersede religious objections."

Even so, local peoples have been known to defend their burial customs vigorously when outsiders have cracked open graves without first consulting local religious authorities. In Jedwabne, Poland, for instance, a rabbi derailed Haglund's investigation-in-progress of a site where Nazis had reportedly burned 1,600 Jews. The reason: The project hadn't met criteria codified in Jewish tradition for disrupting a burial ground.

In Iraq, where investigators believe at least 300,000 bodies lie in mass graves, similar Muslim codes apply. Dr. Siddiqi says gravesite investigators would be expected to obtain prior approval from the local mufti, or religious figure with jurisdiction, and would do well to let an all-Muslim team gather the evidence. But security concerns in Iraq have instead led the American team and its Iraqi trainees to bypass local religious authorities, to brief only Iraqi government officials on their plans, and to begin discreetly in the remotest of locations, according to Gregory Kehoe, regime crimes liaison for the US government. "When you have your people in the field, you want to keep them as safe as possible," said Mr. Kehoe in a telephone interview from Iraq. "The fewer people who know you're out there digging, the better."

Kehoe is confident that, with the exception of insurgents, most Iraqis would support their efforts if they knew about them because "people want this resolved. If they can get their loved ones back for a proper burial, they will opt for that." He says Iraqi human rights officials gave him their permission, to exhume the first site at Hatra and nine more after that, with gratitude: "They were very happy that it was finally being done."

But some scholars who study burial rites across cultures wonder if the Iraqi citizenry will show the same support as their interim government does. From the ancient Egyptians to the Central American descendants of the Mayans, an undisturbed grave is understood to help the deceased carry on a peaceful afterlife, according to Gary Laderman, associate professor of religious history at Emory University in Atlanta and an expert on burial rites. In this sense, the quest for temporal justice on earth gets measured against the need to respect what is eternal, and here even the most pressing of earthly priorities can seem petty.

"This is pretty much a common concern," says Professor Laderman. "You want the dead to rest in peace, no matter the circumstances of how they died.... The forensic process would [in many places] be seen as just another indignity, especially if it's impossible to identify the bodies."

Indeed, those seasoned in grave-site research have at times heard such protests. Haglund recalls a Bosnian Muslim woman who lashed out at the exhumation effort, saying, "You will finish the ethnic cleansing they began because now you're cleansing the dead." Likewise in Congo in 1998, a United Nations team had to cut its investigation short after residents in Mbandaka charged them with desecrating a traditional grave site.

Still, international initiatives tend to proceed with confidence that justice is being served and local residents will be supportive.

Robin Coupland, medical adviser to the legal division of the International Committee of the Red Cross, says he has never faced a situation where locals resisted an investigation on religious grounds.

"I have difficulty seeing this as a moral dilemma," says Dr. Coupland via telephone from Geneva. "If it's murder, presumably it will be investigated.... Most families would find it abhorrent to have their loved ones simply dropped in a mass grave. They would want them exhumed, identified, and given a proper burial."

How ordinary Iraqis would like their mass graves treated is ultimately unknown. Unlike most international investigations, which come backed by the authority of the United Nations, this one has no such blessing. Whether an American-led presence will come across as a sanctifying or desecrating force remains to be seen. But whatever the sentiment may be, the history of lands torn apart by war crimes suggests it's sure to be filled with passion.

"The families are the secondary victims" of mass murder, says Haglund. "You have to try to come to a consensus that is comforting to them."

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