Hussein Trial Halts Again, Setting Off Wave of Criticism

Deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein addressing the court in December. Yesterday's hearing was to have been the first session in roughly a month.
Deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein addressing the court in December. Yesterday's hearing was to have been the first session in roughly a month. (Pool Photo/by John Moore Via Associated Press)

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By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 25, 2006

BAGHDAD, Jan. 24 -- After months in which three different men have been named head judge, two defense attorneys killed and one court session held without the vituperative lead defendant -- all played out under intense political pressure -- the trial of Saddam Hussein ground to a halt again Tuesday amid growing accusations that the U.S.-dominated tribunal was failing.

Repeated delays, including defense boycotts over the killings of the attorneys, have limited the Iraqi High Tribunal to eight days of hearings in the trial of Hussein and seven co-defendants, which began Oct. 19. The limited proceedings have been dominated by the defendants' courtroom outbursts.

Tuesday's hearing was to have been the first session in roughly a month, but chief investigating judge Raeed Juhi announced four hours after the scheduled start of the hearing that the court had canceled the week's sessions after learning that some witnesses were out of the country on pilgrimage to Mecca. The annual Islamic pilgrimage ended more than a week ago.

The tribunal set another hearing for Sunday to try to summon the witnesses, and chief prosecutor Jaafar Mousawi said the court was still viable. "A three- or four-day delay wouldn't affect the trial or its legitimacy," Mousawi said by telephone.

Reaction from Hussein's attorneys and specialists in war crimes tribunals were scathing.

"There is a legal crisis inside the tribunal, and the trial is not going in a normal course," Khamis Obeidi, a member of Hussein's defense team, told the Associated Press.

"There's too much violence in the country, there's too much division and too much pressure on the court," former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, the most vocal of Hussein's lawyers, told CNN. "The project ought to be abandoned. It was a creature of the United States in the first place."

"I don't know what's going on over there, but I certainly smell a rat," said David Crane, an American who was chief prosecutor for a U.S.-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone.

"This is a setback," Crane said by telephone from the United States. "One of the monsters of the 20th century is going to be tried by a faltering extrajudicial tribunal.

"I fear this is going to be a bad example -- you have to show the rule of law is the cornerstone of any democracy. If there's a lack of respect for the law, we're off to a shaky start."

"An embarrassment," Leila Sadat, a Washington University law professor who helped train Hussein's judges, said in a telephone interview. "The American government, I think, has been extraordinarily naive to try to push for an Iraqi trial in an Iraqi court in the middle of civil war using international or American law."

The only clear hope for calm, secure proceedings is for Iraq to move the trial somewhere else in the Middle East, with or without U.S. approval, Sadat said. If Iraq and the United States keep the trial in place, she said, they should look at the option proposed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

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