BAGHDAD — The bullet-riddled body of a key defense lawyer for Saddam Hussein was discovered Wednesday hours after he was abducted from his home by gunmen dressed in what a witness said were uniforms of Iraq's Interior Ministry forces.
The death of Khamis Ubaidi, 49, was branded an act of intimidation by defense team colleagues who said that the loss of the experienced, level-headed lawyer would deal them a serious setback as Hussein's human rights abuse trial moves into final arguments.
Ubaidi was taken from his home as he was making preparations to depart for Amman, the Jordanian capital, where he had planned to meet with fellow defense attorneys to get ready for July 10 closing arguments. Ubaidi's wife said the kidnappers also carried Interior Ministry ID cards; a ministry spokesman denied the allegation.
Ubaidi became the third lawyer from the team defending the former Iraqi president and seven codefendants to be killed since the trial began eight months ago. Besides his wife, he leaves behind six children.
Hussein and his codefendants went on a hunger strike Wednesday to protest the killing, lead defense attorney Khalil Dulaimi told the Associated Press.
Defense attorneys described the loss of Ubaidi, who also represented Hussein's half brother and former Iraqi intelligence chief Barzan Ibrahim Hasan, as a serious setback that would inflict maximum damage on their case.
"The assassination's timing, just before the closing argument, is meant to intimidate the defense attorneys and impede their preparation of a defense," Dulaimi said.
Several lawyers and legal experts said they did not expect Ubaidi's killing to result in a mistrial or a lengthy delay in the court proceedings. Judge Raouf Rasheed Abdel Rahman has consistently refused to grant the defense much leeway on procedural matters.
"The trial is pretty much over," said Michael P. Scharf, a Case Western Reserve University legal scholar closely following the court proceedings. "All that's left is closing arguments. I don't think that even if you were in a U.S. courtroom you would have a mistrial."
But not all lawyers watching the case agreed.
"Surely there is a basis for a mistrial motion," said UC Davis international law professor Diane M. Amann. "The failure to afford the most basic security to the defense team no doubt undercuts the ability of defense lawyers and investigators to do their job. It may be too much to expect zealous and effective representation -- to which every defendant has a right -- from attorneys who fear for their lives."
"From the beginning of this process many of us have pointed out the advantages of convening the Saddam regime trials in a far more secure location outside Iraq and broadcasting them throughout Iraq," said David Scheffer, director of the Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern Law School and U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues during the Clinton administration. "The judges should consider rescheduling the closing arguments of the defense team."
Officially second in command to Dulaimi, Ubaidi had emerged as de facto leader of the defense team, bolstered by his decades of experience in criminal cases.
"He's more senior, more experienced," said Najib Nuaimi, a Qatari lawyer who serves on the defense team. "I rely on him for the internal laws of Iraq."
Ubaidi often took on the role of restoring more cordial relations with the judge and prosecutors after periodic courtroom flare-ups by other defense attorneys. Scharf called Ubaidi a "voice of professionalism" among the often shrill defense attorneys.
"This is a disaster for us," said Amin Adib, an Egyptian lawyer who is also on the defense team.
Hussein and his codefendants are charged in connection with an alleged campaign of mass murder targeting Shiite villagers after an assassination attempt against the former leader in the early 1980s. Prosecutor Jaafar Mousawi has asked the judge to sentence Hussein and two codefendants to death.
Police discovered Ubaidi's body with multiple bullet wounds to the head on a busy thoroughfare in Ur, a poor Shiite neighborhood in northern Baghdad, two hours after he was taken from his home in southern Baghdad.
According to accounts given by Ubaidi's grieving wife to defense team members, he was ordered from his home in the volatile neighborhood of Dora for questioning by men carrying identification cards of the Interior Ministry.
"They came with official uniforms," said fellow attorney Nuaimi, recounting details of a phone conversation with Ubaidi's wife. "They showed their identification and claimed to work for the Ministry of Interior intelligence. They said they had some questions. After one hour, his body was dumped."
A ranking Interior Ministry official denied the allegation, calling it a "dangerous and grave" accusation.
"The Ministry of Interior has no idea about what has happened," said Hussein Ali Kamal, a deputy minister. "We totally denounce the act, which is totally unacceptable."