Iraq Forum

Our invited panel debate the issues surrounding Saddam's trial

What are your impressions of Saddam's trial to date?

On January 25, 2006

Jorge Ovalle

How can you have a "trial" when the verdict has already been determined?

Can anyone imagine the outcry if Saddam Hussein was found "not guilty" of the charges against him? Can anyone imagine such a verdict being handed down?

First, the prosecution would be called incompetent. The jurists would be stoned -- maybe even literally.

Having watched some (not all) of Frontline’s “Saddam's Road To Hell” (a fair and balanced title if ever there was one), I considered the following: What is the penalty for treason in the U.S.- the most democratic and just society in the world? The answer, of course, is death.

Frontline noted that the Kurds took up arms against Hussein's army during the Iran-Iraq war. Consider the following: Mexican-Americans take up arms against the U.S. in a war against Canada. What do you imagine Americans would do or want to do to the Mexican-Americans during or at the conclusion of such a war? Do you think they would just welcome them back into society?

The same can be said for the murder of innocent civilians during Hussein's crusade against the Kurds. Apparently, the charge is that he used "chemical weapons," not that he killed civilians. If "killing civilians" were against the law, our president would have to answer for the deaths of an estimated 30,000 Iraqi civilians since 2003. That's not going to happen.

Is this to say that all of the charges against Hussein are bogus? Not at all. But it is important to keep some balance. Remember, the U.S. did not say "boo" when Latin Americans by the thousands were disappearing. Neither would it likely have invaded Iraq if Hussein had just agreed to stay within his borders and send us the oil.

That's the rotten truth, whether we speak it or not.

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On January 25, 2006
Iraqi scholar Faleh Jabar

I have been very disappointed with the trial as a whole so far. The proceedings have made it seem like the prosecutors and judges had not done their homework. I really feel quite miserable about the whole process, frankly. I was initially very hopeful that we would be able to recover all of these important facts about the atrocities committed under Saddam's rule. But now I am really beginning to wonder whether the whole process may actually be counterproductive.

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On January 19, 2006
Iraqi Blogger Iraq the Model

When the American troops captured Saddam back in December 2003, I thought that he was gone forever, and I wasn’t that interested in putting him to trial or how long such a trial could take because back then, I thought that he could no longer affect the situation in Iraq.

Later, I discovered I was wrong about this; I began to realize that a good deal of the insurgency is fueled by the illusion that keeping pressure on the Iraqi government and coalition forces can reverse history and bring Saddam and the Ba’ath Party back to power.

My attitude began to change, and I started to believe that bringing Saddam before a court of law and giving him the punishment he deserves is of great importance to Iraq and that this can wipe out the illusions of many insurgents and terrorists.

The trial began a few months ago, and it represented something quite new to Iraqis and to the rest of nations in the country. Of course, there were other rulers in the Middle East who were put to trial, but those trials were led by the generals or gangs that took over with coups.

That type of older trial usually didn’t take more than minutes -- no lawyers, no media watching and the former ruler would be soon executed with a bullet in the back of his head or was dragged in the streets.

This trial is different; we see a full defense team with lawyers from Iraq as well as foreign ones, we see the defendant speak and object to what the prosecution and witnesses say. And we see a judge who is calm, gentle and experienced.

Many of us in Iraq felt that Judge Rizgar showed weakness; he was harshly criticized by the people and politicians for his flexibility and “lack of control” over the proceedings of the trial.

I may agree with some of that criticism, but I also strongly believe that the judge has a strong point in the way he’s been acting. He’s telling us that law doesn’t have to look brutal to be strong and that allowing the defendant to speak doesn’t mean that he’s going to be set free!

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On January 19, 2006
Iraqi Blogger 24 Steps to Liberty

“I need to find a way to secure my life first and then worry about what might happen to Saddam.”

As an average Iraqi, who mixes with Iraqis every day, I would like to present an average Iraqi’s point of view of Saddam Hussein’s trial. Of course, these aren’t the views of all Iraqis.

Since the invasion in 2003, Iraqis have been waiting for the moment when their dictator of 30 years would be brought before a court and asked about the crimes he committed against a huge number of people of all ethnic and religious factions. Iraqis have also been waiting for his punishment, which everyone agrees should be the death sentence.

But the awaited trial has taken too long, and Iraqis have lost trust and interest in its results. Violence has killed up to 30,000 civilians, thousands of Iraqi security forces and dozens of clergymen. The unstable environment, daily threats of car bombs and mortar shells raining on random places, along with kidnappings, raids and other dangers, make Iraqis feel like crying. But we cannot -- our eyes are all cried out from such a long time of sadness. With all of these sufferings, the last thing most Iraqis care about now is Saddam’s trial.

“What trial are we talking about?” I recall a friend of mine wondering. “I need to find a way to secure my life first, and then I can worry about what might happen to Saddam.”

I noticed that Professor Scharf said he thinks the judge presiding over Hussein’s trial “is not losing control of his courtroom” and that he is leading a fair trial. This is exactly what people are talking about in the Iraqi streets since the trial kicked off. But of course most Iraqis aren’t interested in courtroom procedures or anything like that.

What we know is that Saddam Hussein caused the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in wars and caused the destruction of a third-world country that was about to embrace modern life in the 1970s. He has left behind him a huge number of widows, including his own two daughters, a huge number of orphans and other miseries from which Iraqis still suffer. That is what Iraqis think of when they think of Saddam. Hence, if you ask, “What do you think of Saddam Hussein’s trial?” to an average Iraqi anywhere in Baghdad or one of the southern provinces, the answer would probably be, “He shouldn’t get this luxurious cell and a fair trial. He should be killed publicly.”

That is what I hear when I chat with people about the trial. In the Iraqi street, the trial is called “the play” and “the circus.”

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On January 14, 2006
Professor Michael Scharf

Why the trial is not a judicial train wreck

Many Western commentators have described the first days of the Saddam Hussein trial as a judicial train wreck, presided over by a weak judge who has lost control of the courtroom.

But the trial should not be judged though the lens of what we are used to in the West. We must remember that this is an Iraqi tribunal even though it employs the definitions of crimes and the due-process rights developed by international criminal tribunals. In the Iraqi legal tradition, lawyers employ a far more boisterous courtroom demeanor than we are used to in the West, often shouting at opposing counsel, the witnesses and the judges. Those who are used to this system don’t perceive such courtroom behavior as disrespectful or disruptive. Under the Iraqi civil law inquisitorial system, the defendants as well as their lawyers are permitted to address the court and the witnesses. Therefore, presiding Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin is not losing control of his courtroom when he allows Saddam to frequently address the witnesses and the court; rather the judge is conducting the trial in accordance with the system under which he has worked as a judge for 30 years.

Far from a judicial train wreck, in just five trial days (October 19, November 28, December 5, December 20 and December 21), the judge has explained the proceedings and rights of the defense, the prosecutor has completed an opening statement, and 14 witnesses have testified and been cross-examined by the defense -- a very efficient pace even by American judicial standards. With 40 witnesses still to go, the prosecution has already proven the scale of the atrocities, the direct involvement of several of Saddam’s co-defendants and the command hierarchy -- the key elements necessary for a conviction in this case. And especially for those who understand Arabic, the testimony of Saddam’s victims has been both moving and compelling.

Not everything has gone smoothly, though. The biggest setback was the assassination of two of the 12 defense lawyers just after the trial began in October. This was a terrible tragedy, and it raised the question of whether Baghdad was too unsafe to hold this trial. But trials of terrorists, drug lords and warlords have been conducted elsewhere in the world amidst similar security threats. The problem here was that the defense lawyers had rejected the Iraqi and U.S. governments’ offer of security, leaving them completely vulnerable to attack. Before the trial resumed on November 28, Judge Rizgar had succeeded in crafting a compromise under which the defense counsel have been assigned heavily armed personal body guards of their choosing, and their families have been moved out of the country for their protection, which should ensure their safety for the remainder of the trial.

Judge Rizgar’s other challenge has been to keep the televised proceedings moving forward while the defendants and their lawyers try every gimmick in the book to disrupt the trial and distract public attention from the testimony. Unlike Judge Richard May, who presided over the Milosevic trial in The Hague, Judge Rizgar has made it a point not to raise his voice in the courtroom. Rather, he has remained calm and patient in the face of the defendants’ frequent outbursts. The Western media describes this as losing the battle of the wills, but in Iraq, Judge Rizgar is seen as demonstrating his fairness, which is more important to the actual success of the trial.

During the fifth day of the trial, December 21, 2005, Saddam interrupted the proceedings with the shocking claim that he and his co-defendants had been tortured by American prison guards several months before the trial. Judge Rizgar wisely indicated that the claim would be fully investigated before the trial resumes on January 24, 2006. It’s extremely unlikely that the investigation will substantiate Saddam’s claims. During the first four days of the trial, Saddam took the opportunity to freely air his grievances, but his sole complaints were that he had not been provided a pen and paper with which to take notes, that he was given only six cigarettes a day (and did not like the brand), that he was required to wear the same suit for several days without a clean change of clothing, and that he was forced to walk up four flights of stairs rather than take an elevator. Had he been subject to acts of torture during his pre-trial detention, he certainly would have mentioned it then, rather than confine his complaints to these minor inconveniences. In addition, in the months leading up to the trial, Saddam confirmed on more than one occasion to Investigating Judge Ra’ad Juhi that he had not been beaten or mistreated while in detention. According to Judge Ra’ad, had any of the defendants complained earlier of torture or abuse, they would have been subject to a contemporaneous medical examination to see if such claims could be substantiated. Finally, Saddam’s claim of torture came not at the start of the day’s proceedings, but followed harrowing testimony by victims of the torture endured at the hands of the Ba’ath Party. Seen in this light, Saddam’s allegations of torture are likely to be found to be no more than another tactic to distract, disrupt and derail the trial.

In the weeks ahead, the pace of the trial will accelerate, with less frequent and shorter adjournments. The prosecution will continue to prove its case, bringing in documentary, video and forensic evidence as well as more witnesses. Then it will be the defense’s turn. The defense strategy will be to argue that the Iraqi High Criminal Court is not a legitimate institution, to argue that Saddam has head of state immunity and to portray the attack against the town of Dujail as a lawful effort to root out terrorists and insurgents who had tried to assassinate him. One thing we can be sure of -- there will be many more interesting trial moments to come.

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