Hussein Judge Steps Out of the Shadows

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By Caryle Murphy

Washington Post
March 22, 2005


When the disgraced but unrepentant old man sat down in front of Raid Juhi last summer, the young judge did not know what to expect. Like most Iraqis, he knew Iraq's former leader only from television, where he always appeared a brave, confident and much-feared hero. Now, Saddam Hussein was making his first appearance as a defendant before the Iraqi special tribunal that will judge officials of Iraq's toppled government for crimes against humanity. Petulant and defiant, the haggard leader claimed immunity from any prosecution, ranted on about the court's illegality and refused to sign an acknowledgment that he had been read his rights.

Juhi, who let Hussein vent before cutting him off, recalled feeling two strong forces during that 26-minute session. One was wonder at how the tables had turned. The other was duty. "I had worked as a judge under Saddam. I never thought I would be in a position questioning him," Juhi, 34, said in a recent interview. "At the same time, our studies and careers taught us how to be objective in our work and to not consider names or ranks but to look at the evidence only. We have a saying in the judiciary system: The evidence talks."

Juhi is the only tribunal judge publicly identified so far. The others remain anonymous because of threats from insurgents, many of whom supported Hussein's government. Though the former leader's trial is not imminent -- Juhi said there is no way to know how long pretrial investigations will take -- one judge on the tribunal has already been assassinated. "It's not bravery," the Baghdad-born judge said of his decision to allow his name to be made public. "It is important for the Iraqis to know that Iraqis are handling the case and that the judicial system is taking up its role." Like many young Iraqis in this blighted capital, Juhi is optimistic and idealistic in his hopes for his country's future, a radiant counterpoint to Iraq's immense postwar miseries: environmental devastation, a pitiless insurgency, grinding poverty, chaotic traffic and haggling politicians. It is still far from certain that Iraq is going to fulfill such hopes. But in these trying days of nation rebuilding, hope is an essential ingredient.

Normally closely guarded for his own protection, Juhi showed up unaccompanied for a conversation with a reporter. He wore a brown suit and tie. Relaxed and affable, he smiled often and answered questions through an interpreter with the logic and balance expected of a judge. Calling the tribunal "a milestone of legal democracy," Juhi said he believed its work would help establish a law-abiding society in Iraq because it is "imposing justice on people who at one time thought themselves above the law. Also, for the first time in the Arab homeland, a president and a whole regime are being legally pursued and interrogated and might be tried for crimes they are suspected of committing."

Out of this process, he said, will come "two messages." One is for "the rulers here and in other countries to not forget. . . . The presidency and the responsibilities given to them are duties given by the community." The second message is to remind ordinary people "that any person, no matter how powerful he or she is, they should abide by the law," he said.

Juhi followed a typical career path to the judiciary under the former government. He graduated from Baghdad University Law School, served in the military, worked as an investigator in the Justice Ministry and then completed a two-year course at Iraq's Judicial Institute that qualified him to be a judge. Like other judges in Hussein's era, he was a registered member of the ruling Baath Party. To get into the Judiciary Institute, he noted, you needed "to be recommended by the Baath offices in the neighborhood you lived in."

But registering as a party member and being an activist were not the same, Juhi said, adding that many Iraqis became nominal members to avoid the scrutiny and persecution that could make life what he called "a big hell." Juhi was working in Iraq's Central Criminal Court in Baghdad when he was asked to join the tribunal, in April 2004. "I was honored to be asked," he said. "I immediately agreed." As the chief investigating judge at the three-tiered tribunal, Juhi oversees the judicial teams that investigate allegations and determine, after hearing witnesses and seeing documents, whether there is enough evidence to prosecute. If that occurs, a defendant appears before a five-judge panel for trial. The tribunal's third level is a nine-member appellate court. When Hussein and 11 of his associates made their first appearance before Juhi in July, it was to be formally notified that they were under investigation. Last month, in another first for the tribunal, Juhi notified five former officials that he had found enough evidence of their participation in crimes against humanity to forward their cases for trial.

The case against Hussein, 67, is wide-ranging. At his appearance, he was accused of ordering seven atrocities: the use of chemical weapons against the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988; the 1983 killing of members of the Kurdish Barzani clan; the killings of political party leaders over a 30-year period; the killings of religious leaders; a campaign of brutal attacks against Kurds in the 1980s; the 1990 invasion of Kuwait; and the violent suppression of Kurds and Shiites after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Asked when the ousted leader might go to trial, Juhi said cases involving crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes require time to develop because of their complexity. "These are sophisticated crimes that are not easy to prove . . . because these crimes are also meant to show, or prove the policy of the government, and to prove that this policy was applied to some of the citizens, who are all coming from one group, maybe political, religious or ethnic," he said.

"But . . . we have come a very long way," he added. "I would say that before, we were digging underground. Now, we are above ground, working on the whole skeleton of the case. . . . I don't think there is a judge in the world who could predict when it will be finished." Despite postwar looting of government offices, the tribunal has "very impressive and powerful documents" that will help prove cases against former officials, the judge said. And in the past year, he and his staff have heard "painful" testimony from witnesses, he added.

"We had some ideas of what had been committed during Saddam's era, but after the investigations we realized that what we've been hearing before doesn't even come near to what was committed in reality," he said. "Before, Iraqis couldn't speak about it and they kept it in their chests. Now, after the war, they started to speak. Iraqis will not be astonished" at what they hear during the trials. "But they will be proud of the tribunal they put their trust in."

Juhi also predicted that "friends from outside Iraq will be proud that they helped in this field. And those who didn't help will tell themselves that it would have been better had we helped." The tribunal was set up with $75 million in U.S. funds and U.S. legal experts are advising the court. The dangers of working at the tribunal were put in sharp relief March 1 when one of its judges, Barwez Mohammed Mahmoud Merwani, 59, and his son, Aryan Barwez Mohammed Merwani, 26, were ambushed and killed in Baghdad as they got into their cars to go to work. The judge "was a member of the investigation team I head," Juhi said, adding that an investigation into his death is continuing.

Initially, Juhi was so closemouthed about his work that even his family did not know of his involvement in the criminal investigation of Hussein until last July, when Iraqi television aired Hussein's appearance before the judge. When his son saw him on the screen, Juhi recalled, he put his hand over his mouth and said " 'That's my father!' . . . He was astonished." Juhi said he wanted to stress that he is "highly optimistic about the future" of his country. "The mistakes done before will not be repeated. There will be no centralization of power against people. The president will serve the people. I'm not only certain, I believe in this." He added that "the secret behind the success of government is the success of law."


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