An Iraqi judge even Saddam respects
Judge Rauf Abdel-Rahman took over a court veering toward farce last January.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
His predecessor had allowed deposed Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein and codefendants to deliver long political speeches and verbal attacks on the validity of the trial. The Iraqi public was growing restless at the spectacle of the feared dictator pushing the chief judge around.
But with a strong whip-hand and stern demeanor, the 64-year-old Kurd has cleaned up most of the histrionics that disrupted the opening phases of the trial of Mr. Hussein and seven codefendants. They're charged with crimes against humanity for allegedly ordering the torture and murder of 148 villagers in the town of Dujail after a failed assassination attempt against Hussein on July 8, 1982.
In court Wednesday, Hussein politely asked "Your Excellency" Mr. Rahman if he could be dismissed when he apparently needed a bathroom break. That respect is a far cry from Rahman's first day on the job, when Saddam's half-brother and codefendant Barzan al-Tikriti decided to test the new judge.
Leaping to his feet he called the court a "daughter of a whore." After refusing to "sit down and keep quiet," as Rahman demanded, two bailiffs hauled the shouting Mr. Tikriti from the room. After a separate confrontation with the judge, Hussein was also ejected. But there have been few outbursts of that intensity from either man since.
In a trial where all witnesses have testified from behind curtains to protect their identities, Rahman has emerged as something of the star of the show. During testimony, the camera often zeroes in on his reactions, and millions of Iraqis have now seen him go toe-to-toe with Hussein and win.
When exasperated with rambling testimony, the interruptions of defendants, or prosecution or defense questions he deems irrelevant, he deploys an actor's array of shrugs, eye-rolls, and sarcastic rebukes to bring them into line.
"The defense strategy is to get him to lose his cool and maybe find a way to push him out and get him replaced,'' says Wael Abdul Latif, a former judge and now a member of parliament for the party of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. "He's finding a way to stay in control without losing patience. I think he's doing a great job."
With his bald pate and hawkish nose, Rahman comes off as something like a Kurdish version of former New York City mayor Ed Koch crossed with your most acerbic teacher from high school.
On Wednesday, Rahman was in typical form. Defense witnesses were heard in the cases of Mohammed al-Azzawi and Abdullah al-Roweed, two Baath Party functionaries accused of rounding up fellow villagers for execution.
"Witness No. 4," a family friend of Mr. Roweed, spent his half-hour on the stand shouting in a shrill voice. At the end of the testimony, a relieved-looking Rahman thanked him for his time, but couldn't resist adding, "Your voice was hurting our ears."
Another defense witness insisted that Mr. Azzawi couldn't be guilty because he's illiterate. The judge interjected: "You're a witness. You're not here to read your poetry."
Even the prosecution was warned against straying. When chief prosecutor Jafar al-Musawi began questioning a defense witness, the wife of Azzawi, about the identity of the Hussein's initial attackers, Rahman quickly cut him off. "What does this have to do with the defendant? Move on."