By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2006
BAGHDAD, Sept. 20 -- Saddam Hussein's lawyers stormed out of his genocide trial on Wednesday to protest a government attempt to sack the tribunal's chief judge, a move against the theoretically independent judiciary that has pitched the troubled trial into chaos.
The bedlam in the courtroom -- including Hussein's expulsion -- followed a vote by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's cabinet on Tuesday to fire the chief judge, Abdullah al-Amiri, after he declared last week that Hussein was "not a dictator." The judge's comments infuriated many Iraqis and spurred calls for his removal.
Human rights groups and international legal observers condemned the government's intervention and said it would undermine Iraq's nascent judicial system by sending a message to judges that they must toe a politically correct line or risk being fired.
"This is Judicial Ethics 101: You don't remove a judge just because you don't like what he says," said Nehal Bhuta, a lawyer with the international justice program at Human Rights Watch, an observer of the tribunal. "This suggests to me that the government of Nouri al-Maliki doesn't have a basic grasp of the independence of the judiciary."
Iraqi and U.S. officials said the move to oust Amiri did not erode the independence of the judiciary. "There is no interference with the decisions and the daily work of the court," said Ali al-Dabbagh, a government spokesman.
The legal fracas represents more than just a historic clash between the executive and judicial branches -- it also reveals how some of the institutions that are held out as evidence of Iraq's progress toward democracy are less democratic than they at first seem. The judiciary is independent, except when it is not. Policemen and soldiers pledge fealty to the government, except when they report to factional militias. And the economy is moving toward a free-market system, except for the existence of subsidies and vestiges of government control.
"To say Iraq is a nascent democracy is an insult to democracy," said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director at the International Crisis Group. "Iraq is descending into total chaos; it is not in the process of building institutions."
Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament, said: "There is more freedom, yes, but not democracy. It doesn't look democratic to anyone, really, except maybe to some people in the Iraqi government or the American administration. But not to most people."
In the courtroom Wednesday, an alternate judge was added to the five-member panel, which made no mention of the judicial shuffle at the start of the court session. Amiri, who will technically remain chief judge for several days until Iraq's presidency council confirms his reassignment, voluntarily chose not to come to court, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
Wadood Fawozi, an attorney for Hussein, quickly jumped up at the start of the session and presented a request, signed by all the defense lawyers, for permission to withdraw from the case. The acting chief judge, Mohammed al-Uraibiy, who was described by U.S. officials as a Shiite Muslim from southern Iraq, granted the motion.
"The government is interfering in this trial and impacting its credibility," Fawozi said. "We cannot continue with our work fairly."
When Hussein objected to the new attorneys that Uraibiy appointed to represent him, the former president jumped up and began pointing at the judge. The judge asked Hussein to sit down at least 10 times before finally throwing him out of the courtroom.
"Take him out! Take him out!" Uraibiy shouted. Hussein pointed at the judge and said, "Your father was a deputy in my security agency!"
Uraibiy grew even angrier and began gesticulating with both hands. "I challenge you in front of the public -- " he said, then stopped in mid-sentence.
"Take him out! Take him out!" he quickly shouted again, as security guards escorted Hussein from the courtroom.
U.S. officials close to the court suggested they were aware of the plan to remove Amiri before it was announced and played down concerns that the move would undermine the tribunal's credibility. "It does not impact the fundamental fairness of this trial," said one of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about the issue.
Special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.