In Iraq last week, a young barrister who recently graduated from law school got a surprising phone call.
"Hi we've got you your first case and it's a big one ... Wait for this; you're getting the Saddam Hussein trial!"
"Wow, I can't believe it! Me, prosecuting Saddam! Oh, I've got to ring my parents."
"Erm, no not actually prosecuting. You're defending him."
"What! Defending the world's most infamous tyrant? But how can I do that?"
"Well you know how it works; try and bring out his good points, his love of animals, his work for charity ... I mean, we have to be seen to give him a fair trial."
"Very much so. A fair trial, but one that finds him guilty."
It's going to be a tough gig defending the most hated man in the world. But all credit to the defense counsel for getting Saddam to smarten up a bit before he came to court. Frankly, that big shaggy beard did nothing for him. One look at that matted grey fuzz and any jury was going to think: "Well, I don't like the look of him."
And much better to trim it than shave it off completely, otherwise everyone might recognize him as that dictator bloke whose face is still on all their wristwatches. This was the first time the world's media had seen Saddam since he was caught last December and they shone a torch in his mouth announcing "nope, those weapons of mass destruction aren't in here either."
Things haven't been made any easier for the defense counsel by the fact the trial is taking place in a location so secret that no one will actually tell them where the courtroom is. There will be video footage of the courtroom, but the judge's face will be pixelated to protect his identity. This is the only trial where it is the judge who has his head under a blanket as he is bundled into the courtroom. Or perhaps this is just because he's so embarrassed to be involved with such a meticulously stage-managed piece of theater. The West's biggest baddie could have been tried by a democratic Iraqi regime, but that might have meant waiting until after the US presidential elections.
Iraq's new national security adviser, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, insisted the process will not be a show trial, as he sold expensive ice creams and glossy programs during the interval. In fact, it is more than that: it is an international celebrity trial; as Big Brother ends, Baghdad Brother begins. A whole cast of ugly candidates will be paraded before us for the two-minute hate as Saddam stands trial with 11 of his former aides, or "henchmen" as they are generally called in the interests of neutrality.
These are some of the faces that became familiar after they were pictured in the US army's famous pack of cards: Abed Hamid Mahmoud, Ali Hassan al-Majid and, after a mix-up with some other playing cards, Pikachu from Pokemon and Mr. Bun the Baker. They are charged with countless human-rights atrocities and the invasion of Kuwait, but interestingly prosecutors have dropped the invasion of Iran from the charge sheet.
Of course, this is nothing to do with any embarrassment that this episode might have caused the US: "Ah, yes," Saddam might have recalled, "I still have my good-luck card from the White House: `Way to go, Saddam, whip those mad mullahs from Tehran, weapons to follow, All the best, The President.'"
They have also decided not to broadcast the audio of what Saddam is saying; instead, a carefully phrased transcript will appear on the screen. Sentences such as "Here are the details of the arms deals I did with the CIA" will be slightly tidied up and rephrased as "I am guilty, that clever Mr. Bush has stopped me and my buddy Osama from invading Utah."
Of course, some sort of trial was required, if only to provide closure and a modicum of justice for the thousands who suffered under Saddam's brutal dictatorship. But this sham isn't it. And as they rejoin the world community, the Iraqis might just consider the bigger picture. This is election year in the US and a successful prosecution of Saddam is the best fillip the Bush re-election campaign could hope for. So to test the idea of genuine independence, in early November the Iraqis should ring up Washington and say: "We've finished the trial, George and, well, we decided to let him off."
"You're not going to execute him?"
"Far from it. In fact we thought, all things considered, we thought we'd appoint Saddam Hussein as the new president of Iraq. He just seemed to have far more experience than all the other applicants. Sorry you went to all that trouble, George. And best of luck with your election on Tuesday."
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