Hussein Trial Halts Again, Setting Off Wave of Criticism

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.

"They reopen the trial really quickly, and they execute him really quickly," she said. "It sounds terribly cruel, but they can't go on like this indefinitely. It's becoming nothing but a shambles."

Talabani, an ethnic Kurd and former rebel leader, drew criticism late last year for saying the evidence already presented against Hussein warranted his hanging.

In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, scores of men and women -- most of them religious students -- rallied Tuesday to demand a better trial and a speedy execution.

"The court has been an auditorium for the political speeches of Hussein and his political henchmen," said Ali Abdul Hussein, 29, a student at Najaf's Islamic University.

"We want this court to be an Iraqi one," added Hussein Ahmed, 26, another student at the university. "Iraqis still feel the pain caused by Saddam. The court shouldn't be American."

"We want to see him and his men hanged in the streets," said Amina Hasan, a 66-year-old woman who said her 22-year-old son was executed by Hussein's government.

The United States has made the prosecution of Hussein -- accused of presiding over the killings of hundreds of thousands of Shiites and Kurds -- one of its priorities since U.S. troops invaded Iraq in 2003. The Bush administration spent hundreds of millions of dollars of a $18.4 billion reconstruction package for Iraq to exhume mass graves and gather forensic evidence. It refurbished courthouses, trained Iraqi judges and provided most of the security for the courts. Americans drafted many of the statutes under which Hussein and his associates are being tried.

Though the United States is a strong opponent of the International Criminal Court, the administration's critics say it should have ensured adequate credibility and help for the Iraqi tribunal by making it international or, at a minimum, moving the trial out of Baghdad.

International qualms about the legality of the proceeding, and about the death sentence that Hussein could face if convicted, have left the United States virtually alone in shepherding his prosecution by the Iraqi government. A U.S. official in Baghdad confirmed last weekend that only the United States and Britain had contributed experts to advise the court on how to prosecute governments for war crimes and other such matters.

The official did not say how many British advisers were taking part; Britain, like other countries, has expressed reluctance to help in the case because it is a capital one.

The U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Regime Crimes Liaison Office run much of the day-to-day arrangements for the trial. Plainclothes security workers, many of them Americans, and Iraqi soldiers guard the turreted, fortress-like former Baath Party headquarters in the American-held Green Zone where the trial is playing out.

The five-member panel hearing the case was thrown into confusion after the trial's last session, on Dec. 22. Chief judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin resigned, complaining of criticism from politicians in Iraq's Shiite-dominated government that he was not reining in Hussein.

The government objected that the judge named to replace Amin had ties to Hussein's Baath Party. He was abruptly removed, and a Kurdish judge from a northern town where Hussein's military is alleged to have killed thousands with poison gas was named on Monday.

Two judges in the tribunal told the Associated Press that the collapse of Tuesday's hearing was due to more wrangling about the head judge's spot, not because of the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Asked what the problem was, one of the judges told the Associated Press, "Matters are not in our hands." He did not elaborate. The news service did not identify the judges.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

This past weekend, the U.S. official knowledgeable about the trial maintained that the Iraqi High Tribunal "is an independent organization" and not run by Americans.

Outbursts by Hussein and his co-defendants actually were providing more evidence against them, the official said. And despite the delays, he said, the court had heard testimony from 14 witnesses on atrocities in the eight days of hearings.

Michael Scharf, another U.S. law professor who helped train the judges and a defender of the proceedings here, called that "a very efficient pace even by American judicial standards." Scharf posted his comment on a Web log set up by Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

Special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.

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