Monett lawyer to serve as legal adviser in Iraq

Monday, January 12, 2004

MONETT, Mo. (AP) -- A southwest Missouri lawyer will serve as senior legal adviser in the effort to set up a judicial system in Iraq.

Steve Hemphill, 47, of Monett, flew Sunday to Washington, D.C., to begin a journey that was expected to land him in Baghdad by week's end.

Hemphill said he will serve as senior legal adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority. Led by U.S. presidential envoy L. Paul Bremer, the Coalition Provisional Authority has governed Iraq since the ouster of Saddam Hussein last April.

Hemphill has traveled, studied and worked in the Middle East, China, Philippines, Central America and Great Britain. He said he applied for the position after learning of the opening from State Department contacts.

Hemphill said doubted he would be involved in whatever judicial proceedings are in the works for Saddam. But an obvious challenge will be organizing an Iraqi civilian court system populated with prosecutors and judges who are legal professionals to replace the cronies of Saddam, who presided during the past quarter-century.

Hemphill, who formerly served as Barry County prosecutor, was aware of the danger involved.

"I can't tell you how many times I've been asked, 'Why are you going there?' And that's an easy question to answer."

It's the Christian thing to do, said Hemphill, an ordained deacon at First Baptist Church in Monett.

"I don't feel we were put on this Earth to be comfortable. I think it's a sin for Christians to look for a comfortable existence. Christ didn't die so that we could be comfortable."

Hemphill acknowledged that such comments will raise eyebrows in the context of his role as a legal adviser in an Islamic region where Christians are viewed with deep suspicion.

But he insisted his beliefs won't impede his professional duties in Iraq. He emphasized that he's not out to convert Muslims to Christianity.

"Quite the contrary," he said. "I have gone to the trouble of learning a lot about Islam. I respect it. I have many Islamic friends. And I know that Christians and Muslims can live peacefully side by side. For example, they did just that prior to 1967 in the (Palestinian-Israeli) occupied territories."

Hemphill served as a human-rights observer in the occupied territories during three-week visits in 1986 and 1987 under the auspices of the Church of England. In 2002, he was in Lebanon and Syria with a non-governmental organization associated with the United Nations.

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