Sat, Jul 10, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Saddam lawyers in fighting mood

PROBLEMS Their client refuses to recognize the court and Iraqi lawyers want them, as foreigners, banned, but Saddam's legal defense is still feeling buoyant

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Amman, Jordan

(ohammed Rashdan, the lead lawyer and organizer of a defense team claiming to represent former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, talks on his cell phone in his office while his brother, Adnan, far right, and Thaer Jbara, middle, look on in Amman, Jordan, Tuesday.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

In a little office off Al Jaleel street, above noisy sidewalks packed with boys selling prickly pears and women shopping for shoes, a group of lawyers thumbed through chunky legal books and debated how to get bail for a man accused of genocide.

This is the headquarters of the Saddam Hussein legal defense fund.

The team begins with Muhammed Rashdan, a 55-year-old former Baathist who says Iraq's ex-dictator has been misunderstood.

"He's a severe person but he's just," Rashdan said. "I'm honored to represent his excellency."

Then there is Ali Nasrat Al-Asaadi, a Kurdish lawyer living in Lincoln, Neb., who adamantly defended Saddam's use of chemical weapons on Iraqi Kurds.

"The Kurds were rising up against him," Asaadi said. "In self-defense, you can use whatever you need, even chemicals."

And Giovanni Di Stefano, a compact, slickly-dressed Italian dynamo, who said he's met Saddam and that one of the former dictator's favorite books is To Kill a Mockingbird.

"That's what this case comes down to," Di Stefano said. "Do you want law or mob justice?"

On Thursday, the men began drafting the first legal challenges to Saddam's prosecution. Saddam, who is being investigated for allegations of genocide and war crimes, has not been charged yet.

The lawyers claim among other things that it is illegal to try Saddam in his own country because he is immune from prosecution as a head of state.

They concede their work will not be easy. For starters, they don't even know if Saddam wants to hire them. In his first appearance last week in front of a special tribunal in Baghdad, a fiery-eyed Saddam refused to sign any court papers and did not ask for specific legal representation. But Rashdan, captain of the defense team, positioned himself as Saddam's main counsel in December when he formed a committee to represent the ex-dictator two days after he was found in an underground bunker near Tikrit. He says Saddam's wife, Sajida, who has gone underground, gave him power of attorney. The lawyers are petitioning the tribunal to meet with Saddam but they have not yet received a response.

The lawyers say they are taking on Saddam's case because of their legal scruples.

"This isn't about Saddam," Di Stefano said. "This is about fact and truth and law and justice."

The threesome, who at times plunge into sprawling conspiracy theories and anti-American diatribes, are at the core of what they say is a widening circle of support. Just last week, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's daughter, Aicha, a law professor in Libya, agreed to help.

If their presumptive client is extraordinary, so are the difficulties they face in representing him: Earlier this week, the lawyers planned a convoy into Baghdad but canceled after they heard some people were waiting to kill them and cut them into pieces. On Thursday, masked gunmen issued a videotape threatening to behead them.

They also face a more bureaucratic problem. The Iraqi lawyers' union is lobbying to bar foreign lawyers from appearing before the special tribunal. Rashdan said he is trying to work out a compromise in which his group teams up with local lawyers. The trial is not expected to start for months.

The lawyers were coy about whether they were getting paid. "If we do get paid, it will be from legitimate funds from the Hussein family," Di Stefano said.

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