CAMP KOREAN VILLAGE, Iraq --
Marines in Iraq have to make difficult decisions on a daily basis. Many of these decisions affect how the Iraqi people and the international community perceive Americans.
Capt. Justin Martell, the battalion judge advocate for 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 8, in western Al-Anbar province, plays a key role in how the people of Rutbah, the largest population center within the battalion’s area of operations, view and respond to the Marines who live and work here.
Martell, a 32-year-old native of Rutland, Vt., is an attorney with the U.S. Office of Special Council in Washington, D.C., in his civilian career. Back home, he investigates and prosecutes violations of anti-corruption laws. Here in Iraq, he is the battalion commander’s advisor for all legal matters, from investigations of violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice on to serving as officer in charge of the detainee collection point, a temporary holding facility for suspected insurgents.
“My position is unique,” said Martell, who served on active duty for four years before joining the reserves in 2005. “Battalions don’t traditionally have judge advocates. The concept of the battalion judge advocate started in 2003. I get to educate Marines in the law of war to make sure we comply with treaties such as the Geneva Convention and customary international law. I work with the Iraqi judiciary, our battalion staff and Iraqi law enforcement to ensure they follow Iraqi law. It’s been a great opportunity.”
One of Martell’s toughest responsibilities is making judgment calls together with payment of claims to Iraqi citizens for alleged damages by Coalition forces.
Over the past four months, Martell has traveled into Rutbah to set up office in the Iraqi police station one day a week. Claimants are ushered in by the Iraqi police, and have the opportunity to present their cases. The claimants are frequently accompanied by an Iraqi lawyer, and Martell has an Arabic-language interpreter to assist in the communications.
Claims range from settling rent payments for Coalition use of buildings in the city to destruction of household property during operations such as raids to arrest terrorist suspects. Martell said he has paid about ten percent of the claims presented to him.
“We (the U.S. government) initially started this claims process to rectify damage we caused during military operations. It’s good because every now and then I see someone who legitimately has an issue, and they are taken care of because we have this program in place.”
On Feb. 5, Martell heard seven cases in Rutbah. He denied the first case, where a man alleged that Coalition forces shot up his car, which caught fire and burned in 2005.
“He couldn’t explain why he waited more than three years to bring this to our attention,” said Martell. “Also, his only evidence was a photo of a rusted-out automobile with no bullet holes in it. It could have been anyone’s car.”
In another case, a man claimed that he was owed $14,000 for cables that Coalition trucks damaged when transporting a generator in 2007. Unfortunately, the man had no evidence or witnesses to attest that the Coalition in fact caused the damage, nor could he identify specifically when the incident occurred. Martell promised to investigate the incident by checking with archived operations reports.
“I have set up a system that is based on evidence,” explained Martell. “If I can confirm from our records that they warrant the payments and the damages have not yet been paid, I will approve them.”
Martell did approve two claims for payment Feb. 5. They were both to a man who allowed Coalition forces to operate from a building he had owned and previously used as a casino. The man received more than $15,000 for the Marines’ use of the facility over the course of several years and for damage caused to the structure.
In addition to processing claims, Martell also works closely with the battalion operations and intelligence staff, as well as his Iraqi counterpart, Judge Ali Dayih Jaryan, in facilitating arrest and search warrants for Iraqis suspected of insurgent activity.
Since the country was handed over to complete Iraqi control Jan. 1, Coalition forces, working in conjunction with Iraqi authorities, are required to have official arrest warrants to detain suspected insurgents.
“I feel like they needed someone who is reasonable and has an ability to evaluate nuance in terms of Iraqi desires,” said Martell. “I would like to think that I am that person; especially in dealing with Judge Ali (Jaryan). He didn’t need someone to come in here, take the bull by the horns, and tell him what to do. Our goal is to allow Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems.”
Jaryan, 35, has extensive legal training, having graduated from the Al-Nahren University College of Law in Baghdad, as well as the Iraqi Judicial Institute.
“Our relationship has developed very well since he arrived,” said Jaryan through an interpreter. “Captain Martell is like my friend. I can trust him.”
Because Martell can only visit Rutbah intermittently, and there is no telephone line between Rutbah and the base, he and Jaryan have to rely on e-mail to communicate about issues much of the time.
As the Marines of 2/25 begin to reduce their presence in the city of Rutbah and prepare to redeploy back to the U.S., Martell sees a bright future for the Iraqi legal system.
“As long as the Iraqi Security Forces can maintain security, the legal system will hold and develop nicely,” concluded Martell.