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Arduous Hussein trial winding up

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 20, 2006


As they began the closing phase of an often-troubled trial, Iraqi prosecutors Monday called for death sentences against Saddam Hussein and three former aides for crimes against humanity that "spread corruption on earth and where not even the trees escape their oppression."

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Chief Judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman held firm control of a court that has sunk into disarray and farce at times during the eight months it has heard the case of Dujail, where 148 people were killed after a 1982 assassination attempt against Mr. Hussein.

The trial was designed to bring justice to a nation starved of it during a generation of Hussein's authoritarian rule. But ending that era, and instilling new faith in the rule of law among Iraqis, is proving difficult in the face of insurgency, chronic insecurity, and sectarian bloodshed – not to mention courtroom antics that have often been more comical than judicial.

Hussein, with a graying beard and hair apparently dyed black, sat poker-faced Monday, occasionally cracking a bemused smile. When the prosecutor finished his arguments, Hussein muttered sarcastically: "Well done."

The Dujail case is the first of a string of cases against Hussein and the former regime, most of greater magnitude. They include the gassing of Halabja that killed 5,000 Kurds in 1988, and the Anfal campaign against the Kurds in northern Iraq that same year, which left some 100,000 dead and 4,000 villages destroyed.

Investigators are continuing to unearth mass graves as they collect evidence for subsequent proceedings. Already they say they have documented evidence of more than 100,000 victims from an anti-Shiite crackdown after the 1991 Gulf War.

"I think in the future, the cases will get better ... the evidence will be better," says Zuhair al-Maliky, former head of the Central Criminal Court of Iraq. "In my opinion, Dujail is the weakest case. I would not use that as a starting point for the tribunal."

If Hussein is found guilty, the verdict will be appealed, but the sentence could be carried out before other cases are heard.

Experts say this trial has not been conducted according to international standards, a concern raised when the decision was first made to hold it in Iraq. The global import of similar cases has led to international tribunals, beginning with the Nuremburg trials of Nazis to more recently ones for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in The Hague and in Tanzania.

But some observers argue that this process has been uniquely Iraqi, and has enabled Iraqis to own and be closer to the outcome. Omar, a mechanic in Baghdad, is glued to the proceedings. "It's a show" he never misses on TV, he says.

Monday, chief prosecutor Jafar al-Musawi told the court that, "The suffering of the Dujail people turned their days into night.... It peaked when Saddam Hussein visited them on July 8, 1982. What followed were barbaric and cruel and savage acts."

Those included an execution order for 148 villagers, though a document from Hussein's intelligence service noted that "of those who were sentenced to death, 46 ... had been eliminated or died during the investigation." Beyond that "harsh torture," prosecutor said, nearly 400 people were held in the desert for four years, and the aerial bombing of Dujail orchards "led to murder."

The prosecutor said the attack was "motivated by revenge," and cast doubt on whether an assassination attempt took place at all. "This was not a criminal investigation, but a military operation ... that led to the death of women, children, and elderly men," Mr. Musawi said. "Even the trees did not escape."