Defining Justice

By Dave Johns

The Saddam Show

Men carrying painting of Saddam Hussein

As Saddam’s trial kicks off each day, citizens all over Iraq hunker down to watch the proceedings. Viewers feel they are watching history unfold, and the trial has become must–see TV. Saddam appears intent on using the television coverage as a hotline to disenchanted Sunnis who may be sympathetic to his plight or fighting as insurgents.

Why is the trial being televised?

Court officials hope the television feed will perform an important didactic function: to show Iraqis a fair judicial process, to expose them to the evidence submitted, and to establish legitimacy for the tribunal before its people. In the Nuremburg Trials of Nazi war criminals, considered by many as the most successful international tribunals in history, the media –– in this case, radio –– played to great effect; many listeners were glued to the broadcasts and were able to hear that justice was done.

What are the dangers of televising Saddam’s trial?

Cameras in the courtroom invariably change the dynamic. They can discourage reluctant witnesses from testifying; in Iraq, some have testified from behind curtains to conceal their identities, and most of the judges do not show their faces on camera, for fear of violence against them. The lawyer for one of Saddam’s deputies was killed shortly after appearing on television. Televised proceedings can also be used politically. In July 2004, 12 former regime leaders appeared on television before the tribunal’s chief investigating judge and were read the charges against them. The tribunal’s then–administrator said this was done because “we wanted to demonstrate that the process is starting.” Some court observers have warned that televising the proceedings could turn the trial into a political event and draw attention away from whether it is fair or not. And, of course, clever defendants can use television as a pulpit to sway public opinion.

Has Saddam used the television cameras to his advantage?

To date, Saddam has used his television time to belittle at every turn the proceedings, the judges and the witnesses. By and large, news reports about the trial have focused more on Saddam’s antics than on the testimony given by witnesses about his atrocious regime. Several times during outbursts, the television sound feed was muted –– an attempt to keep Saddam from upstaging witness testimony. Professor Leila Sadat, an expert on international criminal law at Washington University, says she thinks the former strongman’s actions are “a logical approach for Saddam to use, given that he has been given no real legal forum in which to challenge the legality of the tribunal.”

Can Saddam be prevented from hijacking coverage of his own trial?

Judges have a good deal of latitude in dealing with disruptive defendants. Scharf, who is also an expert on war crimes trials, says that attempting to disrupt trials is a common defense tactic. As an example, he points to the infamous Chicago Seven Trial, in which antiwar protesters were charged with conspiring to disrupt the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In that trial, the judge was forced to bind and gag disruptive defendant Bobby Seales –– a move that made the trial seem all the more unfair. Scharf says that if Saddam becomes disruptive, Judge Amin could have him placed in a glass booth as Adolf Eichmann was at his trial in Israel. But there are many witnesses yet to testify, and it is unlikely Saddam will be able to distract from the substance of his crimes for long.

Back to top     Next: Justice in a War Zone