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Saddam Hussein Protests Trial with Hunger Strike

February 14, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


LINDSEY HILSUM: Saddam started the day shouting “Long live Iraq and the Mujahideen, the holy warriors.”

Judge Raouf Abdul Rahman listened. The battle of wills was coming.

Then it was the turn of Saddam’s half-brother, Barzan al-Tikriti, dragged he claimed from his cell in his pajamas.

BARJAN AL-TIKRITI (Translated on screen): I will sacrifice my mother and father for the sake of the great Baath Party! Iraqis, rise up!

LINDSEY HILSUM: The former vice president wanted to know where his lawyers were. The judge told him they’d walked out of court and gone abroad. The defendants say this isn’t Iraqi justice but the law of Paul Bremer, the American put in charge of Iraq after the invasion.

SADDAM HUSSEIN (Translated on screen): You have been appointed by Bremer. Your government has been appointed with his authority.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The judge tried to call them to order, telling Saddam to stand up to address the court.

But when he used his gavel, Saddam just shouted, “You can hit yourself on the head with that gavel.”

It’s all theater. And certainly Saddam seemed to find it amusing. But this is serious.

The prosecutors watched as the first witness was sworn in. He was supposed to testify from behind a curtain for his own safety. But the voice distortion didn’t work, and the defendants started shouting to the judge, “we know who it is” — so much for witness protection. He said he’d been detained for three years and wasn’t sure if he was a defendant or a witness.

The prosecution presented a document, which allegedly linked Saddam directly to events in the town of Dujail in 1982. Saddam and his codefendants are accused of murdering, torturing and imprisoning people in Dujail.

But the prosecution lawyers don’t seem to have control of their witnesses. Witness No. 2, a former intelligence official, said he’d been forced to testify. When asked about his statement, he said he hadn’t been wearing his glasses when he signed it.

It may be drama or farce but for the people of Dujail it’s tragedy. They remember their sons and daughters who were tortured and murdered after Saddam’s motorcade was attacked there in 1982.

JIM LEHRER: And to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the trial of Saddam Hussein, we get two views. Feisal Istrabadi is Iraq’s alternate permanent representative to the United Nations; he’s also a lawyer. And Leila Sadat is professor of law at the School of Law at Washington University of St. Louis; she has written widely about international criminal law.

Ambassador Istrabadi, this is clearly not going as was intended. For one thing, it was supposed to be over already. But is the Saddam process working as a process; is it working as a criminal proceeding?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, I mean, I think it was predictable that the defendants would attempt to disrupt the proceedings. Unfortunately it seems that the lawyers who were — their foreign lawyers who were admitted sort of at sufferance and within the discretion of the court have also chosen to adopt this tactic.

It is not helpful but the process will continue. The attempts to disrupt the machinery of justice will not succeed.

RAY SUAREZ: We see the excerpts from the daily proceedings of shouting, of interruptions, of people storming in and storming out. But apart from that, is — are witnesses being heard? Is evidence being presented? Are those judges that we saw taking their seats actually getting a case to judge?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: No, as a matter of fact they are, and there are interruptions and of course it’s in the nature of the media to report on the, you know, the interruptions and so on. It makes for better theater.

But, in fact, witnesses are getting to testify. There have been some eyewitness testimony, live testimony of witnesses who saw the horrors in Dujail, and that message is getting through and it is reaching the people of Iraq who, it seems to me, are the people who are most affected by this trial; and whatever the effect may be regionally or internationally, it’s the people of Iraq who understand what’s happening — who understand what’s happening and who understand how critical it is that the members of the previous regime be held to account for what they did to Iraq over the course of 35 years.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Sadat, is this working as a court proceeding?

LEILA SADAT: Well, it’s difficult to say whether it’s working because we’re still in an ongoing process but obviously the disruptions, the replacal of one judge first with another judge and then with a third judge, the fact that the defense counsel has left and that two defense lawyers have been killed, this in addition to the kind of ongoing theatrics means that the trial is a trial that is difficult to see as purely legal. There’s a great deal of political elements going on in the trial and I think it’s of great concern.

RAY SUAREZ: Does the problem, the daily problems, do these problems eat away at the legitimacy of this court, in your view?

LEILA SADAT: Well, I agree with the ambassador that one cannot fixate too much on the antics of the accused because the accused will do things like this.

Milosevic at The Hague has been similarly disruptive, but not to this degree. And, quite honestly, I think Saddam’s defense team has a much better case that it is not being treated fairly.

We have had the deaths of two lawyers. The court has not taken into written submission the motions that have been put forward to suggest either that judge may be biased — that’s a very serious charge and I’m not saying it’s true but it is true that the providing judge is from Halabja, which is one of the sites of the most serious offenses that Saddam undertook during his regime.

And there have also been challenges to the court’s jurisdiction, to the fact that the defense lawyers were not given the dossier in time; and I think the tribunal has actually been too fast, not too slow in accelerating the hearing of witnesses without considering in a very sober and serious manner the very legitimate accusations or at least charges that defense counsel are making about the legitimacy of the trial.

And I suspect that one of the reasons we’re seeing this kind of disruption is because the legal arguments are not actually being heard.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Ambassador, what do you say in response to some of though questions about the standing of this court?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, I appreciate the devotion that Professor Sadat has to the rule of law and the rule of law. She’s professor of law. I’m not sure what keeps Saddam Hussein up at night and determined to disrupt the proceedings is that the strictures of international standards of due process aren’t being met.

This is a brutal thug who’s attempting to sow chaos in the court and prevent it from coming to a judgment about the crimes with which he’s accused of perpetrating.

I think that simply because lawyers behave in a way in a courtroom that they would never do – Ramsey Clark would never behave in an American court in the way that he’s behaving in Iraq, I would suggest. That’s true of the other foreign lawyers.

And I don’t think that shouting and screaming in a courtroom causes the legitimacy of the court to be called into question. As I said, the audience, as far as I’m concerned in the first instance, are the people of Iraq, and they have no doubt that that is legitimate court. They know that the legislature, which they elected under threat of bombs and bullets and death, is the legislature which re-enacted the statute of this tribunal.

Remember that in August and October of 2005, the national assembly reenacted the statute making some changes in October. So they have no doubt about the legitimacy of the tribunal. And I would suggest that ultimately that’s who matters.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Sadat, it was said at the beginning that a trial like the one we’re seeing in Iraq held by Iraqis was better than an international process. Are events bearing that out?

LEILA SADAT: Well, I think that it’s very difficult to say right now. I agree with the ambassador that the Iraqi people deserve to see those who tormented them for 35 years brought to justice. That’s absolutely true and he’s absolutely right to underscore that.

On the other hand, there were many crimes committed during the Iran/Iraq War. There were crimes committed by Saddam in the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and the United States had evidence of substantial crimes committed also during the Gulf War, and so there is an international interest in bringing Saddam to justice that doesn’t take anything away from the Iraqi people but also transcends somewhat local interest.

And so I think had the trial been moved out of Iraq, that would not have done a disservice to them and, in fact, it might have permitted the proceedings to go on in a manner that would have assured the safety of the judges, the defense counsel, the victims and witnesses.

It’s obviously true that the Iraqis need to follow this trial, that they need to own it in the sense of really owning what’s going on and seeing a transformation from a regime of oppression to a regime of the rule of law but at the same time it’s hard to say that the Sunni minority of Iraq is accepting the trial, at least from my understanding of what’s going on.

And the fact that the trial was taking place in, at least started under a court that was initially created by occupation, I think does raise some questions even for those who want to follow the proceedings. So I think moving it out of Iraq would have been a great idea. It was one that was rejected very early for a variety of reasons and I think we need to live with the trial that we now have.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador, you heard what the professor just said. Given that there are still major regime figures to be tried, Tariq Aziz, the former minister, Ali Hassan al-Majid, “Chemical Ali,” might there be a re-visit on the structure, on the format for these proceedings?

FEISAL ISTRABADI: Well, I mean that’s always possible, I suppose.

Look, we ought to understand that these sorts of trials are always difficult. There were structural problems with the most important of these trials, the Nuremberg Trials. There were real flaws with the Tokyo Tribunal, both of those tribunals at the end of the Second World War, and I’m sure Professor Sadat is more of an expert on those and could discuss those flaws more thoroughly than I could.

The Milosevic trial, this week we just had the fourth anniversary of the Milosevic trial. It’s still ongoing and Milosevic has outlived at least one of his judges.

There are deep structural problems whenever you try to have a trial of this magnitude, whether it’s an international tribunal or not.

Some of the problems that have been extant in the international tribunals have been amongst the reasons that the Iraqis did not want to have an international tribunal and even before the fall of the previous regime. I myself was vocal advocate of an Iraqi tribunal.

The issue is taking a step back. At the end of the process can we say that substantial justice has been done? If we can at the end of this process say that substantial justice has been done, then the trials will have been in my judgment, and I think of the judgment of the people of Iraq, a success.

JIM LEHRER: Professor, very quick response. Will we be able to say that justice has been done at the close of these proceedings?

LEILA SADAT: Well, that will be a question that historians and the Iraqi people and the international community will have to answer.

I think the question will be whether Saddam will be able to continue to disrupt the trial and whether not just Dujail, because remember this is one of the smallest of the charges against him, but whether the trial and the tribunal and the court become so unable to handle the situation that they never get to things like the Anfal campaign and Halabja, and some of the other major crimes that Saddam committed.

And I’m very concerned that in fact this trial will not really — not so much that it will be seen as injustice but that it will be insufficient to deal with the many, many crimes committed over nearly 35 years that were seriously alleged and by all accounts were committed by the Saddam Hussein regime.

JIM LEHRER: Professor, Ambassador, thank you both.


LEILA SADAT: Thank you, Ray.