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Saddam trial at uncertain juncture
McClatchy Newspapers


February 13, 2006

WASHINGTON - Curtis Doebbler is one of two American lawyers on Saddam Hussein's international legal defense team.

Michael Scharf, a Case Western Reserve University law professor and former State Department official, heads an international consortium of war crimes experts advising the trial's inexperienced Iraqi judges and prosecutors.




In the first of several expected war crimes trials, Saddam stands accused of ordering the killings of more than 140 Iraqi Shiites in Dujail, a town north of Baghdad, to avenge an attempt on his life during a 1982 visit.

Doebbler and Scharf agree on only one thing about the nearly four-month-long trial of the deposed dictator: It's a mess.

Doebbler blames the U.S. government, which he accuses of running - and rigging - the trial behind the scenes, and of denying Saddam basic rights of due process such as being able to have confidential conversations with his lawyers.

Scharf blames Saddam and his attorneys, who he says are intent on turning the trial into a circus.

After an 11-day hiatus, the trial resumed Monday, but no one seems sure just what will happen next.

The trial, parts of which are being televised around the globe, adjourned Feb. 2 after Saddam and four co-defendants refused to appear in the courtroom. Their boycott began after Judge Raouf Abdel Rahman kicked Saddam's half-brother and one of his lawyers out of the courtroom because they refused to stop shouting.

Covering the trial's last day before it adjourned, CBS News correspondent Kimberly Dozier reported: "If you look at the courtroom, it looks like a bunch of empty seats are on trial."

Since the trial began in October, there have been periodic outbursts from Saddam, who declared he is still president of Iraq, challenged the trial's legality and claimed to have been tortured by his guards.

Beyond the courtroom theatrics, two defense lawyers and an investigative judge have been assassinated by suspected Shiite vigilantes, and a third defense attorney fled abroad in fear of his life.

The first chief judge either resigned because he was fed up with Iraqi and U.S. government interference (his explanation) or was fired because he was incapable of maintaining proper courtroom decorum (the Iraqi and U.S. governments' explanation).

Abdel Rahman, the new judge, is an Iraqi Kurd from a Kurdish town where 5,000 people, including several of his relatives, died during a 1988 poison gas attack ordered by Saddam.

In the United States, it all might be called the Greatest Reality Show on television. In Baghdad and various world capitals, it is raising concerns over whether the Iraqi Special Tribunal is capable of running a trial that is perceived both within the country and abroad as fair and competent.

"Without question, these proceedings have become chaotic," Mark S. Ellis, executive director of the International Bar Association in London, wrote Friday in the International Herald Tribune. "The graver question, however, is that the court is losing credibility, and that support for domestic war crimes tribunals is being weakened."

Doebbler, who shuttles between law offices in Washington and Jordan when he isn't teaching law at a Palestinian university on the West Bank, counts Saddam as the fourth head of state he has helped represent, though he refuses to identify the other three. Joining Doebbler on Saddam's defense team is Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general who is also advising former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic in a separate war crimes trial that marked its fourth anniversary Sunday at The Hague.

The only way to save Saddam's trial, in Doebbler's view, is to start over under United Nations control somewhere outside Iraq.

"There's been a total disrespect for the right to a fair trial," he said in an interview Wednesday. "That can probably not be remedied except by a trial outside the country under U.N. auspices. Otherwise, I think this is nothing but a lynching mob."

Doebbler said he has received e-mail death threats from Americans angry over his legal aid to Saddam, many of them from U.S. active or retired soldiers.

"The real test of human rights and our commitment to due process is when we apply them to people we don't appreciate," Doebbler said. "Saddam Hussein has those rights. When we apply them only to people we like, we miss the whole point of those rights, and we make them worthless."

Doebbler ridicules the legal acumen of the Iraqi judges and prosecutors, some of whom were trained by Scharf and his colleagues.

"The American lawyers are puppeteering things," he said. "It's admirable that they want to use Iraqi lawyers, but it's important to have judges and lawyers who know the law. If you compare them to judges on the Hague tribunal or the International Criminal Court, these judges sitting on the Iraqi Special Tribunal could not even be law clerks to them."

Scharf, who said that Doebbler "takes extreme positions and makes them entertaining," said the trial should continue in Iraq because the Iraqi people have told pollsters in overwhelming numbers that Saddam should be tried and judged by his countrymen.

Given all the pressure, attention and security threats, Scharf thinks the Iraqi judges and prosecutors are actually doing a decent job so far. Twenty-five witnesses, most of them from Dujail, have given compelling, straightforward testimony about the revenge killings Saddam is accused of ordering and about alleged torture at the hands of his senior security officials, he said.

"It's a strong narrative, with a logical order of progression of evidence," Scharf said. "The testimony about how young people were killed or tortured really counters the defense argument that Saddam was trying to root out terrorists. Eight-year-old children cannot be seen as a military threat. So the prosecution is doing its job pretty well."

Iraqis could haul Saddam back into court and place him in a glass box that was soundproofed to block his yells, but that would "look a bit heavy-handed," Scharf said.

And simply allowing the trial to proceed in Saddam's absence, Scharf said, would deprive it of "an important educative value," especially for moderate Iraqi Sunnis from Saddam's religious sect who need to see that he is being treated better than he treated those he detained.

So Scharf is proposing a novel solution to the Iraqi Special Tribunal:

Place a TV in Saddam's cell, deliver a live video feed to it so that he can watch the trial in real time, and have a separate video feed back into the courtroom, showing him watching the trial on TV.

"That way we could see his facial expressions and have a virtual feeling of him being in the courtroom," Scharf said. "If Saddam is not there, his victims won't feel the cathartic vindication of seeing him face his accusers. And the media would stop broadcasting the trial because there's no real interest in an empty courtroom. Saddam needs to be part of the show."


Distributed to subscribers by Scripps Howard News Service.

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