During trial, judge declares Hussein was not a dictator

September 15, 2006|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Until this week, the chief judge in Saddam Hussein's genocide trial had seemed to be just what the chaotic judicial process against Iraq's former ruler needed: He was stern, judicious, efficient and brisk, and court sessions were proceeding in a disciplined fashion.

Then yesterday, Abdullah al-Amiri, a 25-year veteran of Iraq's judiciary, made a startling comment that dropped jaws inside the courtroom in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone and raised fresh questions over the fairness of the effort to bring Hussein to justice, telling the former dictator that he does not believe that he was in fact a "dictator."

The opinion was offered during the seventh session of the trial of Hussein and six co-defendants on charges of genocide in the deaths of as many as 100,000 Kurds during the brutal 1988 Anfal military campaign to crush Kurdish resistance in the north.

Hussein, dressed in a dapper blue suit with a silk tie tucked into his breast pocket, rose to question the testimony of a Kurdish farmer who had said that he visited "the dictator" about 20 years ago to plead for the release of relatives detained during the campaign.

"How is it that this farmer came to see me personally if I was the dictator I am said to be and against the Kurdish people?" Hussein asked.

"I will answer you," the judge said, speaking slowly and deliberately as he repeated three times: "You were not a dictator. You were not a dictator. You were not a dictator."

A broad smile spread across Hussein's face. "Thank you," said Hussein, who is almost universally regarded as a dictator, by friends and foes alike.

"It was the people surrounding you who made a dictator out of you," al-Amiri elaborated. "It wasn't you in particular. It happens all over the world, that the people create dictators."

The extraordinary exchange jolted many observers of the courtroom sessions, which are broadcast live on state television and seemed to affirm a prosecution complaint rejected by al-Amiri the previous day that he should be dismissed for showing bias.

"The Iraqi people are not very happy to see that," Bassem Ridha, the Iraqi government's representative in the court, said of the judge's remarks. "He should really behave the way a judge should behave."

Ridha said the exchange underscores the challenges confronting any Iraqi jurist who attempts to sit in judgment of the much-feared former leader at a time of widespread instability and political uncertainty. Numerous judges rejected the job, fearing for their lives, before al-Amiri, a Shiite Muslim, accepted, Ridha said.

"These are human beings being intimidated by Saddam," Ridha said. "A lot of judges were too afraid to judge Saddam at such a trial. If they go on TV and judge Saddam, they will be followed and their families will be killed by members of his former regime."

A U.S. official close to the court also defended al-Amiri, dismissing the possibility that a Baathist sympathizer had slipped through the tribunal's intense screening process to wind up in charge of trying Hussein. Though al-Amiri served as a judge under the Baathist regime, there is no evidence that he was ever a member of the Baath Party, the U.S. official said.

"In every country in the world, judges use a different style. ... It's too early to read anything into it," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This judge has been running the case in a very prompt fashion."

Liz Sly writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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