Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Stalled Saddam Trial Frustrates Public

Special tribunal is postponed once again following the chief justice's resignation.
By Daud Salman
The slow pace of Saddam Hussein's trial is frustrating many Iraqis, some of whom want to see the former Iraqi dictator convicted quickly.

The special tribunal, which many criticise as chaotic, has lurched along with several lengthy recesses since it began in late October. It has been postponed until January 30 2006 following the resignation of the chief justice Rizgar Amin, who stepped down without explanation.

Rizgar presided over sessions that were both disorderly and heart wrenching. Saddam and his seven deputies often shouted out during the trial, even as witnesses from Dujail, the town where Saddam and his deputies allegedly masterminded the killing of 148 men in 1982, tearfully testified about losing relatives or being imprisoned.

The Dujail trial is expected to be the first of about a dozen cases against Saddam and other former Ba'athist leaders accused of crimes against humanity. They are being tried in the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal, established by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

A distinguished Kurdish judge, Amin was criticised for everything from not speaking Arabic well enough to letting Saddam essentially control the trial through his outbursts and his attorneys' requests for delays. Adding to the chaos, two defence attorneys have been murdered, and another sought asylum in Qatar.

But Saddam's perceived power in the courtroom was the most frequent complaint voiced by Iraqis interviewed in Baghdad and Dujail.

"We're asking for a serious trial. It seems like Saddam is in charge of the trial," said sheikh Jabbar al-Saidi from Kut, 170 kilometres south of Baghdad. "He doesn't even deserve to breathe air."

"This trial is a dramatic play," Ahmed Ali, a 25-year-old engineer from Dujail and a relative of one of the many of victims. "Saddam and his clique are the heroes, and the spectators are the Iraqi people."

Raouf Rasheed Abdel-Rahman was appointed temporary new chief justice this week. He is another prominent Kurdish judge and is from the town of Halabja, where Saddam's regime was accused of launching chemical weapons on civilians in 1988.

Some judges and Iraqi leaders are reportedly trying to convince Amin to return to the bench.

"The judge was very wise," said Haider Adil, 30, an attorney from Baghdad. "He ran the sessions very calmly and allowed the defendants to speak. They even managed to [incriminate] each other [through their outbursts].”

In the meantime, public confidence in the tribunal is waning even among its supporters.

"It's quite obvious that America and the Iraqi government are trying to give the world the idea that democracy is successful in Iraq," said Basil al-Azawi, director of the legal defence centre for human rights in Baghdad. "They are trying to drag out the trial for political purposes, but it is … disappointing for Iraqis."

Marieke Wierda, a senior associate with the International Centre for Transitional Justice in New York, warned that changing judges in the middle of a trial could also affect public perceptions of the tribunal's fairness and integrity.

The overriding problem according to some observers is that the tribunal is administratively weak, suffers from the poor security situation, political pressure and a failure to clarify its role.

"The judges are clearly struggling," said Miranda Sissons, another senior ICTJ associate.

Wierda said it is essential for tribunal members to "reach out to the Iraqi people and explain what they're doing, why they're doing it and what the Iraqi people should expect".

Iraqis who believe Saddam is guilty of mass murder seem torn about whether to support a tribunal that appears to be in disarray or simply skip the judicial process and execute the former leader. About 1,500 Iraqis last month called for Saddam's execution in a demonstration outside of the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the trial is being held.

"If a quick death penalty isn't issued against the ousted president and his assistants soon, tension will increase," said Jabir Hasan Jabir, a 52-year-old attorney from Baghdad. "Something bad might happen."

Daud Salman in is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad. Iraqi Crisis Report editor Tiare Rath contributed to this report.