Der Spiegel (Germany) has an interesting and troubling story about this. Here’s an excerpt, though you should read the whole thing:
According to police, the victim’s and the perpetrator’s families had met at a restaurant in the presence of an Islamic “justice of the peace,” an arbitrator who mediates conflicts between Muslims. The two families had reached a compromise: Fuat would drop the charges, and in exchange be relieved of part of his debt.
According to Bernhard Mix, the public prosecutor in charge of the case, Fuat’s false testimony was part of a deal between the families. “It’s difficult to establish the truth using legal means, when the perpetrator and the victim reach an agreement,” he says….
These justices of the peace don’t wear robes. Their courtrooms are mosques or teahouses. They draw their authority not from the law, but from their standing within the community. Most of them are senior members of their families, or imams, and some even fly in from Turkey or Lebanon to resolve disputes. Muslims seek them out when families argue, when daughters take up with nonbelievers or when clans clash. They often trust these arbitrators more than they trust the state….
In [a recent book on the subject], judges and prosecutors tell of threats toward public officials and systematic interference with witnesses. “We know we’re being given a performance, but the courts are powerless,” says Stephan Kuperion, a juvenile court judge in Berlin. Federal public prosecutor Jörn Hauschild warns, “It would be a terrible development if serious criminal offences in these circles could no longer be resolved. The legal system would be reduced to collecting victims.”
[The arbitrators] operate in a gray area between conflict resolution and obstruction of justice. [One arbitrator], for example, claims to work closely with authorities, but investigators suspect him of preventing witnesses from giving statements to the police. So far they’ve never been able to prove an obstruction of justice….
If these arbitrators would limit themselves to containing conflicts, there would be no reason to object, says legal and Islamic studies expert Mathias Rohe in the Bavarian city of Erlangen. German law, after all, allows for arbitration. What Rohe finds unacceptable is the exertion of influence over criminal proceedings. “Criminal prosecution is a privilege of the state,” he says.
The state justice system, though, is having a hard time shaking off the shadow system….
For a similar story from the U.S., though apparently involving only a small Orthodox Jewish community, see this post.
I generally support the right to engage in religious arbitration of civil disputes, if the parties agree to such arbitration by contract. Such arbitrations should generally be legally enforceable, like other contractually provided-for arbitrations are enforceable, and subject to the general limits that govern other contractually provided-for arbitrations (though there may or may not be some legal problems with that if the arbitrators enforce sex- or religion-discriminatory rules with regard to witnesses). In most states, for instance, parties can provide by binding contract for a marital property settlement, subject to some limitations, but not for a child custody decision (since that involves the rights of people other than the parties). Likewise, arbitration of such disputes should be permitted on similar terms.
I recognize that sometimes the contracts might be the result of social, economic, or emotional pressure, but generally speaking that isn’t a reason to set aside contracts: Businesses and individuals routinely enter into deals as a result of economic pressure, and sometimes social and emotional pressure, and we generally don’t try to rescue people from such deals (again, with some exceptions) — the same should be true if the individuals involved are members of religious groups who call for religious arbitrators rather than secular ones.
But this having been said, the practices described in the Der Spiegel article are quite different, and seem to be crimes, not contracts. Working out a deal through which someone testifies falsely is conspiracy to commit perjury. Working out a deal through which a witness is paid not to testify is conspiracy to obstruct justice. (Sometimes prosecutors may agree to drop minor charges if the underlying harm has been properly compensated for, but that is a decision for prosecutors to make.) Even if the parties have concluded — with or without social pressure — that they don’t want the crime to be prosecuted, the rest of us still have an important interest in making sure that the criminal is incapacitated or deterred from committing such future crimes, and that others are deterred as well.
In any event, some of what the article describes constitute serious crimes, which should be prosecuted and punished as such. Of course, proving such crimes is often difficult, because once the deal is made, the witnesses refuse to testify. But in at least some cases, there should be enough evidence to prove guilt; and a few such prosecutions can have a considerably broader deterrent effect, it seems to me. Thanks to Dan Gifford for the pointer.