YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


More Than Hussein Is on Trial

Upcoming court drama could spur more strife and give the ex-dictator a rhetorical stage. The U.S. sees it as a formative exercise in democracy.

October 14, 2005|Richard Boudreaux and Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — In a country more bloodied now than at the time of his capture, Saddam Hussein is set to appear in court next week for a trial that could become either a milestone in a democratic transformation or a new source of crippling strife.

The five trial judges sit on a special Iraqi court organized and financed by the Bush administration to bring the deposed president and his closest collaborators to justice. But this is not the case Washington wanted to start with.

U.S. officials had advised the judges on the fledgling court to try a "test case" against underlings before putting Hussein on the stand. Urged by Iraqi leaders to move more swiftly, investigative judges chose instead to include Hussein along with seven aides in the court's first trial.

The conflicting pressures on the Iraqi Special Tribunal reflect deep uncertainties about how to proceed with the notorious prisoner 22 months after his capture. With the country torn since his ouster by an insurgency targeting Iraq's elected leaders and 140,000 U.S. troops, much more is at stake than the fate of one man.

Many Iraqis say they look forward to the trial, but the clamor is not universal. Through his lawyer, Hussein is trying to have it delayed. Some Iraqis revere him as a father figure, illegally deposed and humiliated. Others would rather see him summarily executed.

The proceedings, scheduled to start Wednesday in a heavily guarded courtroom in Hussein's former presidential palace complex, are the first of what could be more than a dozen trials, each covering a separate alleged atrocity and carrying a maximum sentence of death by hanging. The first case deals with the alleged revenge executions of 148 residents of a village where the dictator had dodged an assassination attempt.

For Iraq's people, the trials could produce a thorough accounting of crimes attributed to his Sunni Muslim Arab-led regime. But they also risk handing the defendant a televised platform to inspire the largely Sunni insurgency.

For the Bush administration, which found no weapons of mass destruction after ousting Hussein, a string of successful prosecutions could help it defend the decision to invade Iraq by focusing attention on the dictator's alleged atrocities.

For the Iraqi government, dominated by Kurds and Shiite Muslims whose people suffered most during Hussein's 24 years in power, short-term goals are paramount. Iraqi leaders say they hope the first trial will satisfy demands for justice by a beleaguered citizenry during an election season and end with his execution, an outcome they say would deflate the insurgency.

And for the judges and prosecutors of the Iraqi Special Tribunal, their debut will be a test of judicial independence and competence as well as a risk to their lives. Their conduct will help determine whether history views the trials as fair and transparent proceedings or acts of political vengeance and expediency conducted under the tutelage of an occupying power.

"The whole event is going to be tricky," said a U.S. official who declined to be identified. "I'm just not sure they can balance the pressure to make the trial clean and procedurally correct with the desire to do it quickly and reap some of the political benefits they think they might get out of it."

The Tribunal

The lead protagonist in the political and legal drama is a U.S.-created tribunal whose judges have taken pains to proclaim their autonomy, distancing themselves from the Hussein era, their American mentors and the current government.

But they work closely with dozens of U.S. Justice Department lawyers and forensic specialists based here in a branch of the U.S. Embassy known as the Regime Crimes Liaison Office. With a $75-million budget, the Americans have screened tons of physical and documentary evidence, offered guidance to Iraqi prosecutors on strategy and run them through a mock trial.

Under statutes drafted by U.S. officials and ratified in August by Iraq's elected National Assembly, the judges will apply a mixture of Iraqi criminal procedure and international law covering genocide, crimes against humanity and war-crimes violations of the Geneva Convention.

Hussein's attorney, Khalil Dulaimi, petitioned the court last month to postpone the trial to give his client access to a wider range of lawyers and allow them more time to prepare.

The trial judges are expected to hear Dulaimi's arguments in the opening days of the proceedings. Raid Juhi, the investigative judge who prepared the charges, said Thursday that an adjournment was possible before any substantive airing of the charges.

The court's impartiality has also been questioned by international human rights groups, which argue that Iraq's legal system was corrupted by Hussein and left vulnerable to political manipulation.

Last year, Human Rights Watch and other organizations called for Hussein to be tried by an international tribunal or a "hybrid court" made up of Iraqis and foreign jurists.

Los Angeles Times Articles