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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Lawyers for Hussein End Boycott After Security Deal

November 24, 2005|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Easing a crisis provoked by the slayings of two colleagues, lawyers for Saddam Hussein and seven co-defendants called off their boycott of court proceedings after Iraqi officials agreed to authorize and pay for bodyguards of the lawyers' choosing.

The accord, brokered by U.S. officials, means that most of the defense team will be back in court for Monday's resumption of the former officials' trial on charges of crimes against humanity. The slayings and the lawyers' vow to skip the session had fed Iraq's sectarian tensions and threatened to undermine the credibility of the trial.

Khamis Ubaidi, one of Hussein's lawyers, reported the reversal in an interview Wednesday. He confirmed an announcement by a U.S. official close to the court that at least one lawyer for each defendant was expected to appear Monday when the prosecution begins calling witnesses.

The defendants, including the top figures in Hussein's Sunni Arab-led regime, are accused of ordering the summary executions of 146 Shiite Muslim males from the village of Dujayl after a 1982 attempt on the Iraqi leader's life there. The trial by the new Iraqi High Criminal Court opened Oct. 19 and quickly adjourned to give the defense an additional 40 days to prepare.

Although the chief judge received high marks for firm but respectful handling of outbursts by defendants, hopes for a trial that would be widely perceived as fair diminished the next day. Saadoun Janabi, who was defending the former head of Hussein's Revolutionary Court, was dragged from his office and later found dead, shot in the head.

In protest, defense lawyers refused to attend a bedside hearing at which prosecutors took testimony from a dying witness.

Then on Nov. 8, masked gunmen killed Adel Zubeidi and wounded Thamer Hamoud Khuzai in a drive-by shooting. The attorneys were representing Hussein's former vice president. Surviving defense lawyers issued a statement declaring the next trial date "null and void." They demanded protection by armed guards of their choice and also a United Nations-led investigation of the slayings.

The Iraqi government and the tribunal resisted. They offered Interior Ministry police protection and an Interior Ministry investigation.

Defense lawyers argued that Shiite militiamen within the ministry may have killed the two men. And the ministry's claim to be neutral became harder to sustain last week after U.S. Army and Iraqi troops raided an Interior Ministry jail run by a Shiite militia and found prisoners who showed signs of torture.

Both sides made concessions to break the deadlock. The government agreed to give gun permits to the lawyers and their security teams. In turn, the attorneys dropped their demand for a U.N. inquiry, settling instead for a promise that U.S. law enforcement agents would join with the Interior Ministry to investigate the killings.

The defense lawyers had at one point broken off negotiations, but quickly resumed them after the tribunal tentatively appointed the Iraqi equivalents of public defenders to represent Hussein and his co-defendants.

U.S. officials successfully lobbied the Iraqi Bar Assn. to drop its support for the boycott, helping create the breakthrough.

"The Americans promised to spend a great deal of effort to find who killed the lawyers," said a bar association official who asked not to be named for fear of being killed himself.

The U.S. official who briefed reporters Wednesday said American investigators would interview witnesses and review the Interior Ministry's evidence in the killings of the two lawyers.

Neither the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, nor Ubaidi would say how many guards each defense lawyer was authorized to have. The official said the attorneys' security would be "robust ... at least as good" as that offered to judges and prosecutors in the trial.

"We already have the guards, and they are armed," Ubaidi said. "When the government starts paying for them and gives them permits, it will all be legal."

He said two volunteers had replaced the slain lawyers, bringing the defense team back to 13. But Khuzai, the wounded lawyer, is in Qatar for medical treatment and might not return for Monday's session, colleagues said. Some said he was seeking political asylum in that country.

Iraq is bloodied by an insurgency led in part by Hussein's Sunni supporters against the Shiite-led government. For months, government officials have accused the toppled president's lawyers of seeking to delay the trial in hopes the insurgency would get stronger and erode public support for the proceedings.

In his briefing, the U.S. official said the defense boycott might have been a delaying tactic, "but you also have to recognize that there have been two murders."

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