Hussein trial: new judge, new concerns

Judge Rahman's tough line prompted Saddam Hussein to skip Wednesday's session.

On the first day as the new chief judge in Saddam Hussein's trial, Raouf Abdel Rahman made it clear that he wasn't going to tolerate the antics that have turned the courtroom into a soapbox for Mr. Hussein.

"There is no place for political speech here," Judge Rahman warned the defendants on Sunday when the trial resumed after a month-long recess and the resignation of the previous judge, Rizgar Mohammed Amin. "Those that overstep these limits, will be thrown out of the court."

But that tough line was tested when Hussein and four codefendants refused to attend Wednesday's session in protest of the trial's new chief, a Kurd who Hussein's lawyers say is biased against the former Iraqi leader.

But without disruptions and the acidic outbursts from Hussein or his half brother and former intelligence chief Barzan Ibrahim, the trial proceeded without the disruptions that have marked the previous eight sessions in the case revolving around a 1982 massacre of more than 140 Shiites in the town of Dujail, north of Baghdad.

What remains to be seen, though, is if this no-nonsense approach to courtroom order taken by Rahman will successfully keep the trial on track or further roil a case that was meant to be part of the cathartic healing process for a divided Iraq.

"The trial is clearly verging on dysfunction at this point," says David Scheffer, the US Ambassador at large for War Crimes Issues during President Clinton's administration.

"The new judge has allowed himself to become emotionally engaged in a way that does not facilitate a disciplined and respectful process in the courtroom," he says.

At the heart of the trial debate is how to deal with a defense tactic that experts say seeks to disrupt the court at every juncture.

Judge Amin gave Saddam and his seven co- defendants freedom to pontificate before the cameras. But many here in Iraq were outraged by Amin's leniency. Leading politicians called for a tougher courtroom stance.

With millions of Iraqis tuning into the gavel-to-gavel coverage on state TV, and the insurgency showing no signs of letting up, many worried Mr. Hussein's courtroom theatrics would turn into a rallying cry for insurgents.

His grandstanding, some politicians say, would turn him into a national hero, much as the ex-Yugoslavian dictator, Slobodan Milosovic, used his war crimes trial to campaign successfully for a seat in parliament.

Many Iraqis cheer the strict new disciplinarian at the helm of the proceedings.

"This is normal, like a judge behaves in any real Iraqi court," says Mustafa Mohammed, a Shiite, who watched Sunday's proceedings with three friends. "This is the true Iraqi judge. The old judge was a farce."

But Ahmed Amr, the lone Sunni Arab among them, saw things differently. He sat silently throughout much of the proceedings, but when the judge rebuked Hussein directly, Mr. Amr had had enough. "This judge came here already knowing that he would sentence Saddam to death."

Supporters of Rahman point out that he is well within his rights to eject disruptive defendants from the courtroom. But others argue that there is far more at stake here than mere points of procedure.

"The new judge, by muzzling Saddam and his people, gives the appearance that this is roughshod justice and he'll turn these guys into martyrs," says Cherif Bassiouni, a professor of law at DePaul University in Chicago and an internationally renowned expert of international law.

Public perception is more important than procedure, contends Laura Dickinson, a University of Connecticut law professor working as a researcher for the tribunal.

"The goal of this trial is to have a broader impact in Iraq, and it's not enough that the judges observe various procedures," says Professor Dickinson. "The public perception of the trial has to be that it's a fair trial, and that's very difficult in a conflict situation where there is so much tension as there is in Iraq."

Both inside and outside Iraq, however, the perception so far seems to be that justice has taken a back seat to politics in this trial. Amin, the first judge, resigned when he got fed up with the pressure to change his courtroom approach. His replacement was dismissed almost immediately following allegations of ties to the Baath Party.

Human Rights Watch called resignations of two judges, "Nothing less than an attack on judicial independence." Their removal, the New York-based human rights group said in a statement, has "created the appearance of a court that is continually subjected to political interference."

One of five prosecution witnesses who testified Wednesday was a woman who gave some of the most detailed testimony yet and pointed directly to the involvement of Mr. Ibrahim.

The woman, who testified anonymously speaking from behind a screen, said she was arrested and tortured in a crackdown in Dujail that followed a 1982 assassination attempt on Hussein.

"The interrogator hit me with a shoe on my chest and told me I should confess. I told him I have nothing to confess about. He ordered the others to put on the 'earrings' - that's what he called the electrical clips. They put them on my ears, then they took me to the operations room.... One of them shouted, 'Mr. Barzan is here!' He entered the room. I told him, 'For God's sake, I'm a woman. Master, I have nothing to confess. Why are you doing this to me?'"

Wire material was used in this report.

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