Tue, Jul 06, 2004 - Page 9 News List

US justice is on trial in Iraq

In a courtroom in Baghdad, there are two defendants -- Saddam and the coalition forces

By Mary Riddell  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA

Justice, like evil, has a banal face. The dock to which former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was brought sat in one of those familiar blond-wood courtrooms which feature on television whenever celebrities face the might of the US judicial process. If the set looked borrowed from LAPD Blues, then the detail belonged to the sort of magistrates' bench rendered comatose by offenses involving absent tax returns.

Saddam himself looked diminished, as all captured tyrants do, especially those delivered to their day of reckoning in shackles.

Newspapers called him shabby or haggard, but he didn't look too bad, in a white shirt worn over worked-out pectorals. The orthodontist called in, post-spider hole, for some televised emergency flossing seemed to have done a good job. Nothing in this tableau of groundbreaking justice leapt out to frighten the spectators.

But there are many questions to disturb not only the Iraqis whose lives Saddam wrenched apart but also global conscience. Many think the process begun last week is a blatant example of US stagecraft. Salem Chalabi, the tribunal head and nephew of one of the most vocal (and unsavory) Saddam opponents, is not a name to conjure impartiality. Nor does the sidelining of lawyers for the accused, and the exclusion of most Iraqi journalists, augur well for a process that may culminate in a hastily resurrected death penalty.

Much of the anxiety is justified, but not all. The statute under which Saddam stands trial bears the name of Paul Bremer, the departed US proconsul, but its drafters were a battery of international human rights lawyers. The charge sheet, though generic in content and silent about the war against Iran -- when America tacitly backed Saddam -- is clearly framed. Procedures for including independent prosecutors and judges are in place, as are provisions for a fair process.

So far, so good. Those who see the Hague as the better way must also acknowledge the endlessness of Slobodan Milosevic's trial. The initial judge is dead; the defendant begins his account tomorrow. This may be scrupulous justice, but such slow-lane catharsis offers at best a scenic route to reconciliation. Some experts, including Peter Carter, chair of the Bar Council's human rights committee, much prefer the Baghdad model.

But Carter rightly worries that the US risks ruining everything, and says its interference so far has been "unforgivable." Film from the courtroom went out silenced. Arab television stations were excluded, and the tapes of the court proceedings on CNN were marked "Cleared by US Military." Reports of disgraceful acts of censorship, destroyed videotapes of Saddam with a chain around his waist and other deletions not only blight justice, they also suggest to many Iraqis that, in a process manipulated by a hated occupier, some of the horrors perpetrated by the defendant may be cooked up as well.

On the face of it, the proof of Saddam's crimes is everywhere, but evidence is flimsy stuff. Command responsibility, blurred in the Milosevic trial, may be easier to ascribe to Saddam the arch-controller. Even so, the occupation forces have already allowed some of the paper trail to be shredded. Witnesses may never divulge their testimonies if fear or intimidation ordain their silence. Some Iraqis argue that basic security is more important than bringing a dictator to trial, but justice is not a matter of ticking one box or another.

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