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Storm Rages Over Saddam Hussein's Trial, Sentence
Published on Saturday, December 30, 2006 by the Toronto Star
Storm Rages Over Trial, Sentence
Human rights advocates say process that saw three lawyers murdered amounted to a travesty of justice
by Olivia Ward

A trail of blood led across the Middle East to the door of Saddam Hussein's cell.

Saddam Hussein (front C) and six of the seven members of his regime attend court as the prosecution makes its closing arguments during their trial in Baghdad in this June 19, 2006 file photo. U.S.-backed Iraqi television station Al Hurra said Saddam Hussein had been executed by hanging shortly before 6 a.m. (0300 GMT) on December 30, 2006. REUTERS/Pool/Files (IRAQ)
But while the man labelled the Butcher of Baghdad had few defenders, a number of prominent human rights advocates have criticized his death sentence, and the trial that preceded it, as a travesty of justice.

During the year-long proceedings three defence lawyers were murdered, a judge resigned and two others were fired, lawyers boycotted the courtroom and Saddam told the tribunal to "go to hell."

"There were a number of concerns as to the fairness of the original trial, and there needs to be assurance that these issues have been comprehensively addressed," said Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, before Saddam's hanging was carried out. "I therefore call on the Iraqi authorities not to act precipitately in seeking to execute the sentence in these cases."

Arbour, a former prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, indicted Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who later died before the court could arrive at a verdict.

Saddam was executed this morning following the rejection of an appeal earlier this week. The Iraqi government had a 30-day deadline to carry out the death sentence, but pressed for the earliest time.

The much-feared dictator was convicted for his role in the killing of 148 Shiite men and boys after an assassination attempt against him in the central Iraqi town of Dujail in 1982.

He would not go on trial for a second case charging him with responsibility in the deaths of thousands of Kurds during an anti-Kurdish campaign in the late 1980s. Hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis were killed during Saddam's regime, including Shiites who rebelled after the 1991 Gulf War.

From the time U.S. forces dragged Saddam, bewildered and unkempt, from an underground hideout in December 2003, fierce debate raged about how to bring him to justice.

With Iraq emerging from war and political tumult, and its legal system for decades a captive of a corrupt and authoritarian regime, many judicial experts believed Saddam should be tried in an international court, or by a "mixed court" including international experts and Iraqis.

But, says Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch, one of the leading critics of the trial, "even before the U.S. troops took Baghdad the American government announced it wanted an all-Iraqi tribunal. The decision was made regardless of the facts on the ground."

Dicker said that holding the trial in Iraq was "not wrong," in spite of spiralling violence that later created a security nightmare. But without any international lawyers and jurists taking part, "the trial went off the rails at the moment of conception."

U.S. President George W. Bush's administration, Dicker said, "was at a low point in its jihad against the International Criminal Court," when insisting on an all-Iraqi trial, "and it also wanted to make sure (the verdict) would include the death penalty, which wouldn't happen in an international court."

But with America the biggest financial and technical supporter of the trial – contributing more than $100 million (U.S.) to courtroom construction, and supplying the Iraqis with advisers, lawyers and forensic investigators – the trial was also open to charges of bias from the start.

In addition it suffered from meddling by Iraqi politicians, who publicly criticized the proceedings. Human Rights watch said the tribunal "was undermined from the outset by Iraqi government actions that threatened the independence ... of the court." It also pointed to failures to disclose key evidence, violations of the defendant's right to confront witnesses, and lapses of judicial demeanour.

The trial was conducted in an atmosphere of intensifying violence, with Saddam's Sunni Muslim supporters threatening retaliation, and revenge attacks on Shiites and Sunnis escalating.

But Michael Scharf, an internationally respected American law professor who helped to train Iraqi judges and lawyers for Saddam's trial, says that although it "will probably go down in history as the messiest war crimes trial ever," the court did a "reasonable job against amazing challenges."

"The people who criticized the trial were premature," he said in a phone interview, referring to Human Rights Watch. "They should have waited for the written judgment. It is 298 single-spaced pages, the longest in history. The findings were very detailed, and you're left with a history of the regime that will withstand the forces of revisionism."

Amnesty International has also condemned the trial, calling it "deeply flawed and unfair, due to political interference which undermined the independence of the court." And it adds, "the Appeals Court should have ... ordered a fair retrial, not simply confirmed the sentences as if all was satisfactory at the trial stage."

The Vatican, too, weighed in, saying that Saddam's death penalty punishes "a crime with another crime." And the Reverend Jesse Jackson pointed out that Saddam had been a U.S. ally while committing "heinous crimes against humanity... Saddam as a war trophy only deepens the catastrophe to which we are indelibly linked."

In a report issued earlier this month, the U.S. Congress's Iraq Study Group said "the problems in the Iraqi police and criminal justice system are profound," recommending that the U.S. Justice Department take part in a sweeping reform.

But Scharf, author of the newly published Saddam on Trial, said that the training of the Iraqi judges and lawyers for the trial anticipated some of the "crazy things" that happened as it got underway. "We had standby lawyers in case they walked out – and ultimately they boycotted about 90 per cent of the trial. The challenge of trying to maintain order and give Saddam his day in court were so overwhelming that it was one the tribunal just couldn't live up to."

But he said, "he got 39 days to make speeches and say the most outlandish things.

"It was the rule of law, and hopefully, one of the lessons of the trial."

He added, "it's hard in the middle of a moment in history to see how this will be remembered. If Iraq ends up as a failed state like Somalia, it will not be significant. "But if in 10 years Iraq has a democratic government, the trial of Saddam will be one of the seminal events in the transition toward democracy and peace."

Copyright © 2006 Toronto Star Ltd


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