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Perspectives on Saddam’s Trial

July 2, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: How did the wider Arab and Muslim world use Saddam Hussein’s day in court?

For that, we’re joined by Said Arikat, Washington bureau chief for the Palestinian daily newspaper Al-Quds; Samer Shehata, a visiting assistant professor of Middle East politics at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University; and Retired . Army Col. W. Patrick Lang, a former Middle East intelligence analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

RAY SUAREZ: Well after, Said Arikat, Saddam Hussein was so long out of view, this was the first vision that people have gotten of him since his capture. Did it capture people’s imagination and attention?

SAID ARIKAT: Absolutely. I think it also captured a great deal of unsaid anticipation.

RAY SUAREZ: Explain.

SAID ARIKAT: Because, on the one hand, of course, you have Iraqi people who have been brutalized by Saddam over decades, for a very, very long time, and that wanted to see him, they wanted to see justice meted out to him; they wanted to see him face a day in court.

On the other hand, they had a great deal of supporters in Iraq . They feel that this occupation was launched unjustly — that the invasion was launched unjustly as we have seen in some of the demonstrations and so on.

So there was anxiety and anticipation on both sides of the aisle. In the Arab world it also played differently. That’s in Iraq.

But let’s say in Jordan or Palestine or Syria or in Egypt , indeed, it played entirely different, where the Iraqi leader or the ex-Iraqi president was perceived to have been put in prison unjustly as a result of an invasion of Iraq.

They feel there is no way on earth that Saddam Hussein will receive a sort of a fair trial in Iraq . They look at the differences. They say that on the one hand we look at Slobodan Milosevic who was accorded all legal tools at his hand to defend himself at The Hague while Saddam Hussein is being tried in Iraq for allegedly the same kind of war crimes. So they see in essence some, double standards, especially in places like Egypt or Jordan.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Shehata, did you see the same mixed reaction even in places where they didn’t regard Saddam as a hero in the Arab world?

SAMER SHEHATA: Yes, I did see that. I didn’t see anyone really in the major publications, the press or on television, defend Saddam Hussein. But we did see yesterday and today some serious questions and criticisms raised about the whole process, about the legality of the courts, about the U.S. running things as it were, the absence of lawyers with Saddam Hussein there, some talk about this judge and so on.

So there were those kinds of criticisms leveled at the whole process, I think. And I think there was some ambivalence, really. Arabs, you know, had mixed feelings about seeing this man who was the president of Iraq being tried this way by Americans, as it were, in a way. I think many people were really kind of unhappy with that, even though there wasn’t so much sympathy to Saddam.

RAY SUAREZ: Tried by Americans? Pat Lang, we heard John Burns call this an uncomfortable hybrid. There is the appearance of the American hand even though the judge was Iraqi, the security guards were Iraqi and so on and so on?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: I think most Americans really believe that this is a trial run by the Iraqi interim government and that we are playing a very minimum role. But as these gentlemen say, from what I’ve been told in the last 24 hours, there aren’t a whole lot of people in the Arab world who would accept that.

The belief is, in fact, that the interim government is in some way a surrogate for us, and this could not be separated from the former occupation of Iraq.

And what you see here is you see the real problem with this proceeding, and I think it is quite likely that this man will receive a reasonably fair trial, but he is probably very guilty and he is probably going to be convicted and he’ll be punished quite severely. And unfortunately it’s not going to be believed in the Arab world, that that was a procedure in which he got the kind of defense that we claim that everybody ought to get.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we’ve caught a glimpse of how he may handle himself in the dock. What did you make of that?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I would have to say — I’ve lived in the Arab world for a long time — and I would say he won the first round there yesterday. In fact he dominated the situation.

In the Arab world, people respect strength. They respect that kind of presence, the kind of grandeur of the gestures of the way he acted with the judge.

They will respect his defiance toward what they see as the dominating western powers. And they will respect the fact that he is unwilling to bow down. They will respect that a lot while at the same time being glad that he is gone and be quite willing to see that he is punished, most of them.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, do you agree with that?

SAMER SHEHATA: I think that’s correct and in fact we did see that comment that Saddam had won the first round, as it were. He was able to defend himself, although I think he was quite polite really and somewhat deferential towards the judge.

He questioned the legality of the proceedings. He refused to sign at the very end as opposed to the others who did sign and said he wanted to wait until his lawyers were there. And, of course, he did defend his actions and that was, of course, unconscionable but nevertheless, he certainly didn’t succumb to this proceeding at all.

RAY SUAREZ: Said Arikat, for years it has been said of Saddam Hussein that he aspired to leadership in the Arab world.


RAY SUAREZ: Is this – oddly — a chance for him to speak in that way, using the public portions of this trial to speak to an audience far beyond the borders of his own country?

SAID ARIKAT: Absolutely. I think he wants to speak to the larger audience, and if yesterday was any example, I think we have seen him do that to a certain extent. First of all, he came in with his beard. He was appealing to the broader Muslim world.

Then, he emphasized that “I’m the president of Iraq” talking to the Iraqi people, saying that this is an illegitimate government, I’m still the president. He was saying, where is my lawyer –appealing to the wider and larger international community.

Where is my lawyer, unlike Slobodan Milosevic, or others and so. And finally he was saying that he was reaching out to insurgency saying that you must go on, you must fight on and so on. So Saddam Hussein will take every opportunity to reach out to the Arab world, to show that he is still the defiant one, that he really is the victim of this great power that went and invaded Iraq unjustly based on false evidence.

RAY SUAREZ: Perhaps a little bit less talked about, Pat Lang, but maybe there as well, is the idea that in many places in the region, the vision of a former president sitting surrounded by guards coming into court with shackles on is likely to send an electric charge through a society that only can dream of something like that.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I think that’s absolutely true. And when you see this man humiliated in this way, and in the Arab world, the idea of personal humiliation has a lot more punch to it than it does in the ordinary run of American society.

To see that and to know that this is the former symbol of one of the nations of the region – or the countries in the region — will be a very strong thing for an awful lot of people who are running other countries, that’s right, and in addition to that, there are a number of people in the media yesterday who to my surprise kept saying this is the first Arab dictator to be put on trial.

Well, I mean, how is that going to be read in various other places? Am I number two, am I number three? This is going to be a profoundly disturbing thing. His defense is going to be that he acted in the interest of the state, that he was fulfilling his duty as the sovereign president of Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: So, over time, Professor, is there a potential that there will be a split view of this proceeding between the rank and file citizen of countries and the leadership cadres in these same countries?

SAMER SHEHATA: Well, we’ve already seen people in leadership roles in the Arab world — the Egyptian foreign minister, for example, really deflect the question about the trial. He doesn’t really want to talk about that. He wants to talk about Iraq’s future and so on, but I do think that most people in the Arab world, even those who have no sympathy whatsoever to Saddam Hussein, are going to be quite critical about this whole process — about the legality of it being administered or set up — established by the coalition provisional authority.

The first thing that the interim government did was to overrule Paul Bremer’s suspension of the death penalty, as it were. So there are these kinds of, I think, legitimate questions, actually. There are concerns by the lawyers who are going to represent Saddam Hussein about their safety. There have already been threats made in Iraq about — towards them and apparently the American and Iraqi officials and security forces don’t want to provide their security. So these are all very, very serious issues. If there is to be due process and a procedural system of justice in Iraq , this really has to be a little bit better than it has been so far.

RAY SUAREZ: A trial, Said Arakat, that’s not only fair but needs to be seen to be fair?

SAID ARIKAT: Well, you see, this is a quandary for the United States and for Iraq . On the one hand they want to show that there is transparency that Iraq has really made sort of a leap forward toward democracy and the judicial process is so elemental to democracy and so on.

But on the other hand, that will also get Saddam a forum, a big forum, a big podium where he reaches out to the Arab world and he could show himself and so on. And the beginning of this trial also shows a great deal of awkwardness. You have a young judge. You have Paul Bremer saying that if the Iraqis got hold of him, they would cut him up to pieces and so on.

We had the same kind of threats made allegedly against the lawyers of Saddam Hussein made by none other than the justice minister Malik Dohan al- Hassan in Iraq and so on, so there is a great deal of confusion that still surrounds this trial. And I think although it’s really baby steps toward that process, we can look for a long and tedious and tenuous process as this trial goes on.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Patrick Lang, if it is long and tedious, does the attention grow or diminish over time in Cairo, in Tunis, in Fez ?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: I think that if this is televised in the way this was yesterday and he is allowed to speak in this way with the kind of representation that he had, making appeals to Arab dignitaries, this trial will rival in Arab world, the kind of attention that the O.J. Simpson trial got in the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: The Arabic O.J., Professor?

SAMER SHEHATA: Well, people are — unlike the O.J. trial or the other trial, the Laci Peterson trial, we know what the outcome of this trial is from day one. We know that Saddam is going to be convicted of every single charge against him and that he is going to be executed at the end of the day.

But what’s so fascinating and I think what it seems the Americans tried to stop from occurring yesterday was Saddam’s defense. What is he going to say; what secrets is he going to reveal, who is he going to implicate while this trial goes on?

He had very good relations with the United States in the 1980s. So that’s what is fascinating and mesmerizing about it. But we do know the outcome from day one.

RAY SUAREZ: Guests, thank you all.