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3 Jurists, 3 Faces of Iraq Converge in Hussein Trial

October 27, 2005|Borzou Daragahi and Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — They are three lawyers, Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurd, one a poor city kid, another raised on a farm, the third the scion of wealthy landlords.

Last week, they gathered in a courtroom to take part in Act 1 of Iraq's "trials of the century": the prosecution of Saddam Hussein and seven deputies.

Rizgar Mohammed Amin, a Kurd, was the unflappable chief judge who coolly brushed aside Hussein's outbursts. Chief prosecutor Jaafar Mousawi, a Shiite Muslim, made the lengthy presentation against the defendants that many have criticized as shrill and overly politicized. Khamis Ubaidi, a Sunni Muslim who practices criminal law in volatile Al Anbar province, emerged as de facto leader of the large, hastily assembled defense team.

All three were born in 1957, coming of age during the tumultuous decades of Hussein's rise and rule, finally hitting their professional peaks after a foreign invasion transformed their country.

Taken together, the three uncannily reflect the aspirations and experiences of the three major Iraqi ethnic and sectarian groups from which they hail: Amin, confident and exuding the growing sense of power of his fellow Kurds who now hold a key seat at Iraq's political table; Mousawi, still seething along with his fellow Shiites at the oppression suffered under Hussein, but now with the ability to do something about it; and Ubaidi, seeking to portray the Hussein era in the best possible light while trying to cope with the loss of power and prestige that has led the wider Sunni community to fuel the ongoing insurgency.

The three jurists have not only served their customary roles in the initial chapter of a courtroom saga centering on atrocities carried out against Shiite villagers in the town of Dujayl, but they are also among the leading players in a national drama involving competing interests.

The Judge

Amin wears the same mysterious smile outside the courtroom as he did while presiding over the first trial session of Hussein and his co-defendants. He grew up as the privileged son of a wealthy landlord in Sulaymaniya, the Kurdish city founded several hundred years ago by his tribal ancestors, the Jaffs.

Amin excelled at his studies and was dispatched to Baghdad University to study law, graduating in 1980. His wife and their children, ages 5 to 15, remain in Sulaymaniya.

Colleagues describe him as having a nearly fanatical dedication to his political independence and to the law. As an ambitious lawyer in Baghdad, he refused to join Hussein's Baath Party. Once back in his hometown in the early 1990s, he refused to join the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party that runs the eastern half of the semiautonomous Kurdish enclave.

Nonetheless, his legal abilities propelled him to the top of the judicial establishment in both the capital and Sulaymaniya.

In Kurdistan, he is legendary as the judge who sentenced to death both a powerful Kurdish warlord convicted of double homicide in 2000 and a German woman found guilty of murdering her Kurdish husband in 2003. Amin acted despite domestic political pressure in the case of the warlord and pressure from Berlin in the woman's case. Neither sentence has been carried out.

Michael P. Scharf, a Case Western Reserve University legal scholar who helped train Amin in international human rights law during a weeklong workshop in London last year, called him a rarity in Iraq, having a demeanor ideally suited to overseeing what will be among the most politically charged trials in recent history.

"Most of the Iraqi judges were of this archetype that is boisterous, outgoing and aggressive," Scharf said in a telephone interview. "He was more laid-back and reserved and had this sense of quiet confidence. He's got this big smile that's very disarming and infectious."

Amin brushes aside most reporters' questions as politely but firmly as he addressed the defendants before millions of television viewers around the world last week. Everyone in his courtroom will get a fair hearing, he promised, even someone accused of killing tens of thousands of people.

"I'm saying I won't oppress anybody, and that is absolute," he said during an interview.

Even defense attorneys praised the courtroom manner of Amin, who has gray, closely cropped hair, a thin salt-and-pepper mustache and a 2-inch scar under his left eye that resulted from a childhood accident.

"We had a sense of what he was from the very beginning, a person with high manners who is very capable of [overseeing] the courtroom and practicing the law," Ubaidi said.

Last week, Amin spoke to two Los Angeles Times reporters outside the entrance to the Green Zone hotel where he is quartered during the trial. But despite a nearly 30-minute discussion, he revealed very little about himself or his views.

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