Judge calls a halt to trial of Hussein

Questions arise: Can defendants be tried fairly in absentia without lawyers of choice?

February 03, 2006|By RICHARD BOUDREAUX | RICHARD BOUDREAUX,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The court trying Saddam Hussein and his co-defendants adjourned yesterday for 11 days without resolving an impasse that has left the defendants' dock strangely empty.

Until the deposed president and other defendants walked out this week, the landmark trial was teetering on the edge of chaos. Hussein's televised anti-American rants had raised the troubling question of whether the proceedings were giving him a platform to stoke an insurgency led in part by his Sunni Arab followers.

But since a new chief judge took over Sunday and imposed discipline, the trial has run more smoothly. With Hussein, other key defendants and their lawyers absent, the court heard three days of uninterrupted testimony by 10 Iraqis about their imprisonment and torture during his rule.

Now the question hanging over the U.S.-supported Iraqi High Tribunal is different: Can it bring justice and be perceived as fair if Hussein and his cohorts continue to be judged in absentia and without counsel of their choice?

In calling a recess until Feb. 13, Judge Raouf Rasheed Abdel-Rahman said yesterday that he was allowing time for more witnesses to travel to Baghdad. But Western officials and independent legal observers said they hoped the break would produce a deal that brings the defendants and their lawyers back to court.

"A trial without Saddam in the courtroom will seem like a show trial without the star attraction," said Michael P. Scharf, a Case Western Reserve University law professor who helped train the tribunal's magistrates.

The impasse developed Sunday when the new judge expelled defendant Barzan Ibrahim al-Hassan al-Tikriti, Hussein's half brother and former intelligence chief, and a defense lawyer for yelling. The 12 remaining defense lawyers promptly walked out, followed noisily by Hussein and two other key defendants.

Four lesser-known defendants remained in court that day, and three of them showed up Wednesday when the trial resumed. But Abdel-Rahman announced yesterday that all eight defendants were being excluded from the session for disorderly conduct.

Court officials have said the defendants may return if they petition the judge and agree to behave.

Khalil Dulaimi, Hussein's lawyer, said the defendants and their attorneys "have reached a dead end with this court." They are boycotting the trial and will continue to do so, he said, unless the chief judge and two of the three prosecutors are removed on grounds of bias.

One of his arguments, unanswered so far by the court, is Abdel-Rahman's past. He was imprisoned and allegedly tortured for membership in a Kurdish nationalist movement in the early 1970s when Iraq was under a Baath Party regime but before the rise of Hussein. He is a native of Halabja, a Kurdish town where thousands died in a 1988 poison gas attack for which Hussein is expected to face a separate trial.

Since the trial opened, the defense has been maneuvering to force delays or move it outside Iraq. They argue that the country's sectarian violence and heavy influence by the United States make a fair trial here impossible.

Hussein's absence this week has polarized Iraqis, as has the trial.

"His presence is essential because he is the reason American troops invaded Iraq," said Mostafa Abed Ala, 32, a Sunni civil servant in Kirkuk. "Kicking Saddam out of court and humiliating him will bring even more violence by the insurgents loyal to him."

"The credibility of any trial decreases in the absence of the defendants," conceded Adnan Ibaidi of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the biggest party in the ruling Shiite coalition. "But in this case we are dealing with Saddam, a known criminal. We do not need any testimony to prove his atrocities."

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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