May 15, 2006

Saddam Trial - The Next Phase (May 15)

After almost eight months, yet only 24 court sessions, the first trial of Saddam Husayn is entering the next phase - presentation of the defense. The Iraqi judicial system can be confusing, being based on a mixture of French and Egyptian civil law. Here's where we are.

After gathering evidence on his own in his capacity as chief judge, and hearing the prosecution present evidence based on the complaint filed by the chief prosecutor, Chief Judge Ru'uf 'Abd Ar-Rahman decided on which crimes alleged in the complaint the defendants will be formally charged with.

This initial trial deals with the 1982 Dujayl case, specifically the reaction of the regime to an assassination attempt against then-president Saddam Husayn. The judge formally charged Saddam with with the arrest of 399 people in Dujayl, torture of women and children and destruction of farm property. He was not charged with the murder of 148 people who were sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court, although this was part of the prosecution's complaint. (Note: Saddam's half-brother Barzan Ibrahim At-Tikriti, former head of the Iraqi intelligence service, was charged with the same crimes plus the death of the 148 people.)

Saddam refused to enter a plea and reprised the now-tiresome refrain that he is still the president of Iraq.

Now begins the defense phase. Each defendant will be mounting his own case, since the charges vary from defendant to defendant. However, the defense starts from the disadvantaged position. The judge has already heard evidence, in and out of court. Based on that evidence, he has determined which charges each defendant must answer. This amounts to a presumption of guilt, as opposed to the American system, where innocence is assumed and guilt must be proven.

As an example of where we are, let's take a look at the first defense witness. The man was called by 'Ali Da'im 'Ali, a former Ba'th party official in Dujayl. Under questioning by the judge, the witness stated that he was not in Dujayl at the time of the incident, but at the time he was a fellow teacher with 'Ali and 'Ali was a good man - not exactly exculpatory evidence.

Defense witnesses will continue tomorrow.

The trial is woefully behind schedule, and many Iraqis are tiring of watching it. After the initial fascination with the case, the long periods of time between court sessions and antics of the defense have taken their toll. One Iraqi Shi'a told me that rather than hold a series of trials with multiple guilty verdicts, it would be better to find him guilty and execute him and put all this in the past. The Iraqi government still intends to hold a series of trials to bring out all of Saddam's crimes. The next trial will charge Saddam (and six others) with genocide in the 1988 "Anfal" campaign against the Kurds in which as many as 100,000 were killed.

It will take years at this pace.