Defining Justice

By Dave Johns

To learn more about the debate and what’s at stake in Iraq’s High Criminal Court, follow our guide to some of the most frequently asked questions about Saddam’s trial.

Hands holding documents

On December 13, 2003, U.S. troops found a disheveled Saddam Hussein hiding in a hole in the ground by a farmhouse near Tikrit, his hometown. He was taken into custody without a fight. For a man who lived his adult life in lavish palaces and allegedly murdered tens of thousands of his own people, both his confines and his demeanor made a surprising contrast. “He wasn’t very tough–he was cowering in a hole in the ground, and had a pistol and didn’t use it, and certainly did not put up any fight at all,” U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told CBS’s 60 Minutes.

Today, Saddam lives mostly in solitary confinement under the watch of U.S. military police. He’s not allowed to mix with other prisoners and gets a half–hour walk in the morning and evening. He prays, reads the Qur’an and sometimes writes poetry. During his daily exercise period, Saddam tends a small garden. “He is looking after a few bushes and shrubs and has even placed a circle of white stones around a small palm tree,” said Bakhtiar Amin, the human rights minister in the new Iraqi government, to the Associated Press.

Saddam is on trial in the Iraqi High Criminal Court for crimes committed during his three decades as Iraq’s president. (To learn more about the specific charges against him, see our companion feature “The Crimes of Saddam Hussein.”) Human rights investigators discovered troves of documents detailing some of his crimes after safe havens were established in Iraq in the wake of the first Gulf War. After the 2003 invasion and Saddam’s capture, the U.S. Department of Justice created the Regime Crimes Liaison Office in Baghdad to help find more evidence of his crimes. Iraqi and U.S. investigators have since unearthed hundreds of mass graves all over Iraq. At one such site in Hatra, about 200 miles north of Baghdad, investigators found the remains of 150 men killed by automatic weapons fire and the bodies of 300 women and children. According to Investigator Greg Kehoe, “What was found at Hatra shows how the Hussein leadership made a ‘business of killing people’ –– the marks from the blade of the bulldozer that shoved victims into the trench, the point–blank shots to the backs of the babies’ heads, the withered body of a 3– or 4–year–old boy still clutching a red and white ball.”

Saddam is expected to face genocide charges for his role in the Anfal Campaign against the Kurds in the 1980s and his attacks on the Marsh Arabs in the 1980s and 1990s. The 1983 Barzani abductions and killings may also fit the definition of genocide.

Few observers doubt that Saddam is guilty of many of the crimes of which he is accused. But many people do have questions about the best way to bring a ruthless war criminal like Saddam to trial. His capture prompted a worldwide debate about how best to achieve justice for the Iraqi people.

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Dave Johns is a writer and public radio reporter in New York. His work has appeared on many national public radio programs, including NPR’s Living On Earth, PRI/WNYC’s Studio 360 and The Next Big Thing, and other shows.

SOURCES FOR THIS FEATURE: 24 Steps to Liberty blog; ABC News; Agence France Press; Al–Ahram Weekly; Al Jazeera; Asharq Al–Awsat; American Prospect Online; Associated Press; Baghdad Burning blog; BBC; The Boston Globe; CBC; CBS News; The Christian Science Monitor; CNN; Council on Foreign Relations; Counterpunch.org; CPA–IRAQ.org; Creighton Lawyer Magazine; Crimes of War Project; Famous Trials web site, Douglas O. Linder; Global Policy Forum; GlobalSecurity.org; Grotian Moment: The Saddam Hussein Trial Blog; Human Rights Watch; The Independent; International Center for Transitional Justice; Iraqi Criminal Procedure Code; Iraqi High Criminal Court Revised Statute; Iraq The Model blog; JURIST; The Los Angeles Times; The Middle East Media Research Institute; Middle East Quarterly; MSNBC; The New Republic; The New York Times; The New Yorker; Newsweek; Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; PBS Frontline; PBS Online Newshour; PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly; The Providence Journal–Bulletin; Radio Free Europe; Reuters; Social Research; The Sunday Times; Supreme Judicial Court Historical Society; UC Berkeley Human Rights Center; U.S. Department of Defense; U.S. Department of State; U.S. White House Office of the Press Secretary; USA Today; Voice of America; The Washington Post; The Washington Times