Courtroom theatrics

July 02, 2004

IT TOOK ONLY a few minutes after the shackles and cuffs were removed for Saddam Hussein to shake off the 7-month-old image of a coward in a spiderhole and reassume the hubris of a dictator.

At his arraignment for war crimes, Mr. Hussein lectured the youthful judge, refused to sign charging documents and launched into the familiar words and gestures of his political harangues. "This is all a theater," he declared in dismissing the proceedings.

Indeed, it was theater, as will be the trial where the former Iraqi president is called to account in an Iraqi court for offenses against his own people and humanity.

Iraq's interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, was eager to take legal custody of Mr. Hussein and broadcast yesterday's proceedings to his countrymen in a necessary and effective demonstration of his new government's heft and legitimacy.

The carefully choreographed event was intended to send a message that Mr. Hussein's day is done, that he will be dealt with fairly but thoroughly in an exhaustive examination of his murderous regime, which could provide Iraqis with the catharsis they need to begin anew.

Yesterday's 30-minute appearance also thrust Mr. Hussein back on the world stage, which he used to address former supporters and sympathizers in the Arab world, calling President Bush "the real criminal."

Providing the former dictator such a platform is a huge risk, but one that is absolutely necessary. The trials before an Iraqi Special Tribunal of Mr. Hussein and 11 of his henchmen must be conducted as openly as possible so the Iraqis can learn all there is to know and make their own judgments.

The worst course would be near-secret proceedings ending in execution that turn a brutal bully who gassed his own people into a martyr.

Yesterday's event included some missteps. Mr. Hussein was brought into court without a lawyer for what was described as a preliminary presentation of the charges against him. Criminal defendants often appear alone in similar proceedings in this country as well as Iraq. But denying Mr. Hussein access in this instance to the legal team secured by his family allowed him to grandstand on the issue.

Similarly, journalists working for Iraqi publications were excluded from the small pool of reporters permitted at the hearing, and a reporter for an Iraqi newspaper was evicted from the courtroom. That sends a terrible message to a nation already skeptical about how much its new government is controlled by U.S. minders.

Saddam Hussein's trial is still many months off. The time would be well spent getting the "theatrics" right before the curtain rises.

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