Tue, Dec 14, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Saddam -- one year later

PRISON LIFE The former Iraqi president has taken up gardening, undergone a hernia operation, and written poetry and a novel while waiting for trial


In the year since he was captured and hustled away to a secret location, former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein has taken up gardening, undergone a hernia operation and written a novel and some poetry.

What he has not done is meet with any of the 20 lawyers who claim to represent him. And with the country in the grips of an insurgency that remains strong, predicting when Iraq's most famous prisoner will be tried is no easier now than it was on the day he was pulled from his hiding spot near his hometown of Tikrit.

When Saddam first appeared before an Iraqi court in July, some officials predicted a swift trial. Now, they expect it no earlier than the beginning of 2006, Iraq's National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie told reporters.

Officials say the work of gathering evidence -- documents, mass grave sites, testimony from victims -- continues away from the public eye and beyond the reach of the insurgents. They insist that it is being done meticulously and legitimately.

US officials with the Department of Justice's Regime Crimes Liaison Office are advising the Iraqi Special Tribunal on the process of bringing Saddam to trial. The US paid the tribunal's annual budget of US$75 million.

But with elections approaching on Jan. 30, the Iraqi government is in flux and is likely to stay that way for another year.

Trainers also face a dearth of qualified Iraqi prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges. If proper attorneys are found, they take a new kind of risk -- threat from both the guerrillas or others trying to stymie the trial.

There are few Iraqi lawyers willing to represent him, while prosecutors fear challenging him.

"At various points in time they have had a number of judges who have since withdrawn," said Hania Mufti, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch.

That fact has been sobering for the US, who predicted Saddam's capture would cripple the insurgency. They portrayed violence immediately after his capture as the last gasp of desperate loyalists.

Since then, the guerillas have continued exacting a bloody toll against US troops and their Iraqi allies.

Saddam is said to have a 20-member legal team, but has met none of them. A lawyer was supposed to meet him for the first time last Wednesday but the US military canceled it.

"Denying him this right is a serious breach of international protocols," Saddam's lawyers, who were appointed by Saddam's wife, Sajida, said in a statement on Sunday timed with the anniversary.

The Jordan-based team called for Saddam's immediate release, calling his detention "illegal right from the very beginning."

"Saddam could reveal very important information and his trial could become a lesson not only for the Iraqi people but for history and humanity," said Entifadh Qanbar, spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress party, led by Chalabi's uncle Ahmad Chalabi. "Unfortunately, this opportunity is going away, and this court is losing its credibility."

The court then lost a partner when the UN refused to help train judges because the world body will not cooperate with courts that can impose the death penalty.

In the meantime, Saddam receives regular visits from the Red Cross, which passes letters from him to his family. He gets out of his 3.5m-by-4.5m cell twice a day for recreation, which includes exercising and tending plants. Saddam has also undergone a hernia operation and his blood pressure varies, a US official said.

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