A woman survivor of the Halabja attack attended a Halabja court on Tuesday when a landmark lawsuit was filed against German companies accused of conspiring with the Iraqi regime in the attack. Photo: Osamah Golpy/Rudaw
HALABJA, Kurdistan Region — Halabja victims have filed a multi-billion lawsuit against several German companies they accuse of helping the former Iraqi regime produce and use the chemical weapons that killed and injured thousands of people 30 years ago.
MM-LAW, an American law firm specializing in cases of crimes against humanity, filed the case in the Halabja Civil Court on Tuesday.
Lawyer Gavi Mairone revealed the German companies named in the case, saying they "have a mountain of evidence."
Representing 1,380 people, the firm is seeking $1 million in compensation for those killed, $7 million for each individual injured, and $100,000 for family members who have lost their loved ones during the attack.
Lawyer Gavi Mairone
An estimated 5,000 people lost their lives and another 10,000 were injured when the Iraqi regime attacked the city on March 16, 1988, during the last year of the Iraq-Iran war. It is the largest chemical attack against a civilian population in history.
Mairone said that many of his clients are not motivated by the money, but a desire to ensure such an attack cannot happen again. "I don't want any other mother to go through what I have gone through," he recounted what his clients tell him.
Faisal Aziz, 44, married and father of four, is one of the plaintiffs. He suffered minor lung injuries from the attack. Four of his family members, two brothers and two sisters, were less fortunate.
The chemical attack happened just before midday. Aziz's family survived the initial bombing, only to come under another wave of airstrikes later that day as they fled to Anab, a village outside of the city.
His mother lost her eyesight and his father suffered from burns and lung problems until he died in 2014.
"I am dead but living," said Aziz when asked whether he considers himself a victim or a survivor.
Faisal Aziz lost four members of his family in the chemical attack
Aziz was a teenager, just 14, when the planes dropped internationally forbidden gas agents against the civilian population, describing it as “doomsday.”
The court case, however, has brought him a spark of hope.
"Now is the time to write history [again]" he said, stressing the importance of bringing foreign firms to justice in his hometown where he is working as a teacher, helping primary school children to learn English.
"It will help further recognize the case," he concluded, sitting in the packed hall listening to academics explaining how to draw global attention to the Halabja attack.
After filing in court, the US law firm, employing local and international lawyers, detailed the case to locals and media gathered at the city’s genocide museum.
"This lawsuit is the first time that banks and major multinational companies are being accused in a conspiracy to commit genocide, to commit war crimes, and crimes against humanity," Mairone said.
They have compiled tens of thousands of documents over a period of 10 years that show an alleged link between the German companies and persons within the Iraqi regime of the time.
"Everyone knew that this was a criminal conspiracy, and so they concealed all the documents. They tried to hide witnesses," Mairone said, defining Halabja as an appropriate place to hold the trial.
"These companies must come to Halabja and let them explain why they are not parties to this conspiracy... Let them not avoid coming here. These victims are suffering and have suffered. Let them see them in the eyes so they can see what their profits have created," he added.
The firm will push for the case to go ahead in the Kurdistan Region whether or not the defendants decide to attend the hearing.
Acknowledging that the landmark case will be a challenge for the Kurdistan Region’s justice system Mairone said he is sure the trial will be fair and may also help Kurdish courts to develop skills and capacities to deal with such big cases.
Though some locals were suspicious that the lawyers were trying to profit from Halabja’s suffering, the overall feedback was supportive of the case.
Sami Jalal, a Kurdish lawyer who works with MM-LAW and the Global Justice Group, explained that the firm will not charge the victims unless the case is won in court, adding that the law firm has to receive a share of any compensation won since they don't have an outside sponsor.
Ari Abdul Latif, an MP who represents Halabja, demanded the firm and Halabja Victims Society disclose the contract they had signed.
"It is healthy to be skeptical," Mairone told Rudaw about such doubts, but said that the firm does not take instructions from governments. The contract is between a private firm and private citizens, he said.
Both the law firm and the victims have been clear that the fight to bring the accused companies to court will take years, but a law to be passed on this issue in the Kurdistan Region parliament may help facilitate the process, they argued.
At least two Kurdish MPs, Latif and Omar Haji Inayat, both from Halabja, stated that they are prepared to help the court procedures.
The Kurdistan Region can open a special court to try such a historical case, Awara Husen, a law professor from Halabja University, told Rudaw, but it should be up to international standards if the victims want to receive recognition internationally.
Current Iraqi law, passed following the US-led invasion to try criminal cases of the former regime, do not allow naming companies as defendants, only individuals, Husen explained.
Either the regional or federal parliament could amend the law, Husen added, or Iraq’s 1969 penal code can be used.