Iraqi government ousts chief judge in Hussein's trial

Removal follows his comment in court that deposed leader was not a dictator

September 20, 2006|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The Iraqi government fired the chief judge in Saddam Hussein's genocide trial yesterday, prompting accusations of political interference and raising renewed questions over the fairness of the effort to bring the deposed Iraqi leader to justice.

Government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said the decision to remove Abdullah al-Amiri was taken at a Cabinet meeting after the judge's comment in court last week that he did not regard Hussein as a dictator. The Cabinet, known as the Council of Ministers, then issued an order to the U.S.-created Iraqi High Tribunal to replace him, Dabbagh said.

His comment shows "he is not entitled to be considered a neutral judge," Dabbagh said. Al-Amiri has been transferred elsewhere in the judiciary and his place on the five-member panel will be taken by his deputy in the trial, which began Aug. 21 and is expected to last at least four months.

With the attempt to bring Hussein to justice already clouded by other controversies, human-rights groups said the move could damage the presumed independence of the court and endanger a fair trial for Hussein and his fellow former regime officials.

"What is disturbing is the evident political pressure being exerted by the political leadership of Iraq on the judicial process," said Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "I think it raises serious questions about the credibility of the trial."

Iraq's coalition government is dominated by the Shiite and Kurdish parties whose supporters were the main victims of the crimes for which Hussein is charged, and Sunni politicians also condemned Al-Amiri's removal as political interference and a violation of the clauses of Iraq's newly adopted constitution providing for an independent judiciary.

"It is a very, very dangerous development," said Hussein al-Falluji, a lawyer and parliamentarian for the National Concord Front, the main Sunni bloc in parliament. "What we have now is the Council of Ministers removing a judge, and this is tantamount to committing murder against the political process in Iraq, the independence of the judiciary and the constitution."

The statute establishing the tribunal was enacted in 2003 by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority. The statute states that a judge may only be relieved of his duties by the unanimous decision of the other judges in the tribunal and makes no mention of the possibility of a judge's removal by the government.

Al-Amiri's contentious comment came last week during Hussein's trial on charges of genocide in the 1988 Anfal campaign to suppress Kurdish opposition in which up to 180,000 people died. After a Kurdish witness described Hussein as a dictator, al-Amiri told Hussein: "You were not a dictator."

Defending the decision to fire al-Amiri, government officials said the comment prompted a torrent of complaints from Iraqis who do regard Hussein as a dictator and who believed the judge was biased.

"The government had to step up and do something about it," said Bassem Ridha, the Iraqi government's representative to the court and an adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "We've had a lot of complaints."

The firing is another setback for the judicial process. The chief judge in Hussein's chaotic first trial, in the execution of 148 Shiites in the village of Dujail in 1982, stepped down after government officials criticized him for allowing Hussein to talk too much. A verdict in that trial is expected by next month.

Liz Sly writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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