Wed, Nov 08, 2006 - Page 9 News List

An open-and-shut case at the edge of anarchy

Saddam Hussein's trial was meant to help restore order to a war-torn Iraq, but the effect of the proceedings is unclear

By Michael Howard  /  THE GUARDIAN , SULAYMANIYA, IRAQ

It was meant to be straightforward -- a Nuremberg-style trial to show the world that dictators could be made to face justice in the land they once terrorized. Almost two years after being hauled from a hole in the ground, former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein would finally enter the dock to answer for his crimes before a fully functioning Iraqi court.

The case -- the torture and execution of 148 Shiite men and boys from Dujail after a failed assassination attempt against the then president in 1982 -- would not rank as the greatest of Saddam's crimes, but they were relatively easy to prove.

The Bush administration hoped the hearings would expose the nature of Saddam's crimes, which the Americans had used in part to justify their invasion. They also hoped that a guilty verdict, and Saddam's resulting execution, would take the sting out of the Sunni insurgency.

The US spent more than US$140 million preparing for the trial, fortifying the court and training Iraqi officials.

"We hoped it would set a new standard for justice, not just in Iraq but across the Middle East -- showing citizens that their leaders could be held to account," a senior US legal adviser to the Iraqi tribunal said.

In the dock with Saddam were Taha Yassin Ramadan, a former vice president; Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, Saddam's half-brother and a former head of the mukhabarat, or the Iraqi secret police; Awad Ahmad al-Bander, a former chief judge of Saddam's revolutionary court; and four Baath party officials from Dujail.

Such was the prosecutors' confidence that lawyers predicted it would be over in a month.

There was an air of triumphant expectancy as Saddam and the seven co-accused were called into court shortly after midday on Oct. 19 last year, in the former Baath party headquarters, now inside the Green Zone. Saddam was the last to appear. Unlike the others, who wore traditional Arab robes, he wore a dark pinstripe suit and open-necked shirt.

His beard was trimmed and his hair had been cut and combed. But the 68-year-old looked thinner than at his arraignment and the lines in his brow spoke of the strains of solitary confinement. He was, however, calm and self-assured. Yet from the moment the senior judge on the five-man panel asked him to stand and identify himself, Saddam brought the proceedings to the verge of anarchy, setting the tone for the next nine months.

"Those who fought in God's cause will be victorious," he declared, clutching the Koran. "I am at the mercy of God, the most powerful."

The judge asked him again to identify himself.

"Who are you? What does this court want?" Saddam said. "I don't answer to this so-called court, with all due respect, and I reserve my constitutional right as the president of the country of Iraq. I don't acknowledge either the entity that authorizes you, nor the aggression, because everything based on falsehood is falsehood."

The judge then told Saddam to "relax" and said the court could hear his testimony later. But he still needed his name.

"You know me," came the response. "You are an Iraqi and you know that I don't get tired."

Despite refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the court, Saddam would later mutter that he was "not guilty," his plea echoed by his co-defendants.

From the moment Saddam refused to tell the judge his name and recognize the legitimacy of the court, their strategy for the trial became clear, the US legal advisor said.

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