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Hussein Prosecutors Wrap Up Their Case

First phase ends in the trial, which has become a political canvas viewed differently by each of Iraq's three main ethnic and religious groups.

April 25, 2006|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi court trying Saddam Hussein and seven co-defendants on Monday heard the last prosecution evidence of alleged crimes against humanity, closing the first phase of a trial that some Iraqis see as a quest for justice and others as a further example of their nation's growing sectarian conflict.

The charges stem from the execution of 148 Iraqis in retribution for a 1982 assassination attempt against Hussein as his presidential motorcade drove through the largely Shiite town of Dujayl, 40 miles north of Baghdad. The defendants also are accused of wrongfully imprisoning hundreds of Iraqis, expelling Shiite Muslim families from their homes and destroying their orchards.

On Monday, the court heard an audiotape in which a voice purported to be Hussein's received word that expropriations were being carried out. The former dictator remained impassive throughout the last day of evidence against him, blinking rapidly but saying nothing.

His lawyers said they would call more than 60 defense witnesses when the trial resumes May 15. Observers expect the defense to be completed and the special court's five judges to begin deliberations by the end of June, with a verdict expected roughly a month after that.

All the accused face the death penalty if convicted.

Six months into the first of what is expected to be several trials covering Hussein's alleged crimes, including one for an alleged campaign of genocide against Iraq's Kurds by Hussein's secular Sunni Arab regime, the court has become a political canvas onto which many Iraqis project their worst sectarian biases and fears.

To Shiites, the nationally televised spectacle offers the pleasure of seeing their onetime tormentor in the dock, charged in one of the smaller-scale massacres recorded during his rule. But Kurds are frustrated by the court's decision to start its multiple proceedings against Hussein with the Dujayl case.

The Kurds are anxious to get Hussein into the dock for larger-scale massacres against them, notably his 1988 Anfal campaign against the Kurdish insurgency that included chemical attacks on civilians. About 2,000 villages were uprooted and 50,000 to 100,000 people were killed during the campaign, according to international estimates. Anfal was a far better known and better documented event than the crackdown on Shiites in Dujayl.

Some Kurds even worry that Hussein will escape justice for Anfal if he is convicted and executed over the first charges. Court observers say such a scenario is unlikely, although the sequence of trials and sentencing is unclear.

Meanwhile, some Shiites complain that the defendants have turned the trial into a political soapbox that panders to the Sunni minority's frustration at its loss of influence.

"The defense has presented nothing but the political side, pushing the court into politics instead of sticking to the criminal facts," said Tariq Harb, a prominent secular Shiite lawyer.

Evidence of that was on display Monday, as some of the defendants stood to mock a report by handwriting experts that said their signatures appeared on death warrants for the 148 executed prisoners. Defendant Barzan Ibrahim Hasan suggested the documents were forged, saying technological advances make fraud easy.

"The media say we have killed 148 people, but there is a difference between killing people and sending them to courts and the courts decide they should be executed," said Barzan, Hussein's half brother who headed the regime's security services at the time. "We are not murderers. We are Iraqi patriots. The people you talk about tried to kill the president."

That argument appeals to many Sunnis, including those who are not necessarily Hussein supporters but fear what they contend are roaming Shiite death squads. They long for the protection that Hussein's police state used to offer them.

"This is a political trial to please the parties who came to power after the fall of the regime, those who hated and had grudges against Saddam," said Hikmat Zubaidi, 59, a Sunni lawyer from the city of Baqubah. "The court that tries Saddam has a Kurdish judge. The prosecutor is a hard-core Shiite.

"We feel that this is a trial of all Sunnis, not Saddam."

And Zubaidi has no doubt about the verdict: "The result of the trial will be the result the Americans want," he said.

Times staff writers Shamil Aziz and Saif Rasheed in Baghdad and special correspondent Ranya Kadri in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

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