Hussein trial lawyers refuse to attend closings


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Key attorneys mounting the defense of Saddam Hussein and his seven co-defendants refused to appear in court yesterday for closing arguments, setting the stage for more chaos in what has already been a tumultuous trial.

Judge Raouf Rasheed Abdel-Rahman, who has overseen the trial with an iron fist since he took over from his predecessor this year, named court-appointed lawyers to represent the defendants in the absence of their attorneys.

Rahman barred Hussein and other defendants from entering the courtroom as a group, insisting that each defendant come alone before the magistrate "in order to make sure that the trial will go on in a quiet and orderly way" while the other accused watched the proceedings on television.

Hussein and several co-defendants face possible death sentences for charges stemming from the killings in 1982 of 148 Shiite villagers in Dujail after a failed assassination attempt against the president. Final defense arguments began with testimony on behalf of two minor defendants whose lawyers attended the session.

Yesterday's courtroom scene amounted to the two defendants, Ali Dayih and Mohammed Azawi, each with their lawyers in the courtroom, making lengthy pleas for acquittals on charges of crimes against humanity.

But most of the lawyers for the heavy-hitters, which include Hussein, his half-brother Barzan Ibrahim al-Hassan al-Tikriti and former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, stayed not only out of the courtroom but away from the war-ravaged country altogether as the final defense arguments began in the first criminal case relating to the alleged crimes of the former Iraqi government.

With three defense attorneys having been shot to death, including Hussein's No. 2 lawyer Khamis al-Obeidi last month, the lawyers argue that the country is too dangerous for the trial.

"After Khamis Obeidi was killed, I became afraid," said Amin Adib, an Egyptian lawyer on the defense team, in a phone conversation from his Cairo home. "I have three kids and a wife. Not only my wife but my whole family insists that I not go to Baghdad."

But attorneys representing Hussein and Ibrahim said that they refused to attend because the trial proceedings were stacked against them.

"We are asserting our defendants' rights," said Najib Nuaimi, a former Qatari justice minister serving on the defense team.

"The court doesn't respect international law," he said by phone from the United States, where he is visiting. "They don't respect international standards. They are arresting our witnesses. They've inhibited our ability to operate a defense."

Court officials took a swipe at the boycotting defense attorneys, urging them to act in the best interests of their clients. The officials said they had offered defense attorneys the same protection provided to prosecutors and judges, who live and work largely in Baghdad's U.S.-protected Green Zone.

"The most important duty of the lawyer is to provide legal counsel for his clients," Raid Juhi, the Iraqi High Tribunal's chief investigative judge, told reporters gathered in the courtroom. "And of course, the most important duty is to attend the courthouse to do his job."

But the defense attorneys argue that entering the court's security bubble abrogates their independence and compromises their integrity. They say they're ready to defend their clients under better security conditions.

Court proceedings are to resume today with two more minor defendants.

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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