The Big Question:


By Kim Sengupta

September 27, 2006

Why does the question arise now?

The trial of the former Iraqi dictator who is charged with some of the most notorious human rights crimes in recent times has been adjourned until 9 October. The latest chief judge, Mohammed Oreibi al-Khalifa, suspended proceedings after Saddam and his six co-defendants were thrown out of court this week following a shouting match in which the judge's orders could scarcely be heard over the din. Ten months after it began under the most intense of media spotlights, the trial is in chaos, with little hope of improvement until it finally staggers to a close.

When will it end and what is the likely outcome?

Contrary to the practice of justice elsewhere in the world, the verdict in this case appears not to be in doubt - the former President of Iraq will almost certainly be convicted of a number of crimes which carry the death penalty. The Iraqi government has publicly declared him guilty and has removed judges who did not overtly support this belief. There have even been discussions among politicians in Baghdad on whether he is entitled to execution by firing squad, a privilege of the officer corps of the Iraqi armed forces, or hanging, the fate of more common criminals. No one knows when proceedings will wrap up as the prosecutors say they are still considering fresh and further charges.

What are the charges so far?

Saddam and his co-defendants are accused of genocide over Operation Anfal carried out against the Kurds in 1987-8, in which 180,000 people were killed, many by chemical weapons. The former Iraqi leader, and other defendants, had already faced charges of being responsible for the deaths of 140 people from the Shia community in 1982 at the town of Dujail. They were allegedly massacred following an assassination attempt on Saddam. The verdict on Dujail is expected in the next six weeks.

The expected conviction is not due to be the end of matters, however. Other cases including the gassing of five thousand Kurds in the town of Halabjah in the 1987/88 campaign, will be the basis for charges in the future.

How has the case descended into chaos?

In January this year Chief Judge Rizgar Amin resigned after complaints he failed to impose order on his court. Five weeks later his successor, Sayeed al-Hammashi, was removed after it was disclosed he was a former Ba'ath Party member. Next came Judge Abdel-Rahman who, despite being from Halabjah, where Saddam's regime carried out a poison gas attack killing 5,000 people, was deemed to be impartial. He left complaining of political interference and was succeeded by Abdullah al-Amiri, who caused consternation by telling Saddam "you were never a dictator". Seven people connected with the trial have been killed and one lawyer has sought political asylum abroad. Saddam's chief defence lawyer, Khamis al-Obaidi, a prominent Sunni public figure, was abducted, tortured and murdered by men claiming to be from the Interior Ministry. Days before the start of the trial, investigating judge Raad Juhi, survived an assassination attempt.

How is the defence being conducted?

Defence lawyers are, at present, boycotting the proceedings in protest at the sacking of Judge al-Amiri. They had walked out in the past. Judge al-Khalifa has declared that they will be replaced by court-appointed lawyers unless they reappear when the case reconvenes.

What is the view of international jurists?

There have been repeated protests and calls for the trial to be a moved to a neutral venue. Ramsay Clarke, who appeared briefly alongside Saddam's defence team, asked for the move, as did Richard Goldstone, the first prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. He said: "It is impossible to have a public trial if you cannot guarantee the safety of witnesses, judges or defence counsel." Following the dismissal of Judge al-Amari, Richard Dicker, a trial observer for Human Rights Watch, complained: "The government has not only interfered with the court's independence, but greatly undermined the court's own appearance of neutrality and objectivity. The transfer of the judge sends a chilling message to all judges: tow the line or risk removal."

What did the occupiers hope to achieve?

One aim of the Iraqi government and their American sponsors was to display the feared former strongman in a position of humiliation and defeat. In this they have failed. From the first day he appeared in the dock, lean and alert after his spell in captivity, Saddam had been the central figure in this courtroom drama, dominating hearings, seeing off judges. Yesterday he left the courtroom with a grin, once again the centre of attention. For most Iraqis, the trial is not of uppermost concern. His death, when it comes, will be highly symbolic but also one among thousands of others. Few in Iraq ever had illusions that this was about justice rather than about retribution.

What will this mean for future war crimes trials?

It would be wrong to draw too many inferences from the Saddam trial for others, such as that of former Liberian ruler Charles Taylor, who will appear before an international court under an entirely different legal code. The trial of former Yugoslav leader, Slobodan Milosevic, drew strong criticism but it was still based on an international legal code. Saddam's trial has suffered from various differing interpretations of the new Iraqi legal code. And both defence lawyers and international consultants have protested that the judges have ignored accepted tenets of international law such as allowing the defence to properly cross examine witnesses.

Is Saddam's trial a farce?


* Presiding judges have changed five times while there have been murders and kidnappings of defence lawyers

* There has been some political interference by the Iraqi government

* The near-unanimous view of international legal experts and observers is that a fair trial is not being conducted


* He is being tried in an open court under international scrutiny, something he never accorded to those tried by his regime

* It is the right of the new Iraqi state to deal with its former dictator on home soil

* For the first time, survivors of his regime have a platform to seek redress

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