A farcical trial

Published : Nov 18, 2005 00:00 IST

Nearly two years after he was found in hiding, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein goes on trial in Baghdad charged with crimes against humanity. - BOB STRONG/AFP

Nearly two years after he was found in hiding, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein goes on trial in Baghdad charged with crimes against humanity. - BOB STRONG/AFP

The Iraqi tribunal trying Saddam Hussein is already convinced of his guilt and will control the trial to ensure that uncomfortable questions are not raised.

THE appearance of Saddam Hussein in a United States-appointed and supervised court in Baghdad in the third week of October has once again highlighted the double standards adopted by the occupation forces in Iraq. As commentators have observed, the trial in Baghdad was very different from the historic Nuremberg trials of German leaders. Only one of the five Iraqi judges was shown on television; the identity of the other judges is being kept secret. The trial was adjourned after a day's hearing and will be resumed on November 28.

Many in the Arab world viewed the entire drama as yet another illustration of "victor's justice" being meted out. Others have viewed it is an attempt to divert the attention of the Iraqi people and the international community from the mismanagement of the referendum process on the Iraqi constitution, held in the second week of October. Senior officials of the interim Iraqi government, including President Jalal Talabani had said recently that the trial of Saddam Hussein would be held sometime next year. The killing of one of the defence lawyers a few days after the start of the trial has further eroded the credibility of the court.

Saddam Hussein's day in court showed to the world that he remained defiant as ever. He identified himself as the President of Iraq, underlining the fact that there had been no legal transfer of power following the American invasion of his country. He told the judge who questioned him that he did not "recognise the parties" that appointed him.

Saddam Hussein has been under American custody for the past two years. Under international law he had to be produced before a court of law at the earliest possible time. Human rights groups have been critical of the trial from the very outset saying that it is simply to justify their invasion of Iraq. Harold Pinter, this year's winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, has described the American invasion of Iraq "as a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law".

Many international jurists also emphasise that President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair had already condemned Saddam Hussein as a mass murderer before the invasion. Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch has expressed his concern about the fairness of the trial. Human Rights Watch had warned that the trial could be "violating international standards for fair trials". One of Saddam Hussein's authorised lawyers, Andre Chami, said that what was being witnessed was a "parody of trial and a parody of defence".

As the French newspaper Le Monde has observed, the trial would have had some credibility if some of the world's eminent leaders, past and present, were also made co-defendants along with the Iraqi leader. Some prominent figures in the present Bush administration have had very close dealings with the Iraqi leader. The U.S. Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, is known to have played a key role in propping up Iraq as a counter-weight to Iran in the early 1980s after the Islamic Revolution. Rumsfeld was then working for President Ronald Reagan, who began the process of arming Iraq with Western weaponry. Washington had encouraged Baghdad's belligerent posture towards Teheran, resulting in the eight-year-old war, which claimed more than a million lives.

At that time the U.S. helped the Iraqi government by providing it with satellite images of Iran's military positions. It is also well known that French, German and Belgian companies supplied much of Iraq's chemical weapons. Among the other supporters of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s were Jacques Chirac, Margaret Thatcher, George Bush Sr. and almost all the present leaders of the Arab world. They all played a big role in arming and supplying Iraq until the early 1990s.

The main charge against Saddam Hussein and the seven co-defendants stems from an incident in 1982. According to the charges read out in court, Saddam had ordered the execution of nearly 150 Iraqis after an attempt on his life in the predominantly Shia town of Dujail. The attempt on Saddam Hussein's life was made by members of the Dawa Party, led by Ibrahim Jaafari, now Iraq's Prime Minister. Another serious charge against Saddam Hussein was that he had ordered the gassing of civilians in the Kurdish town of Hallabja. There have been conflicting versions of the incident in Hallabja that took place at the fag end of the Iran-Iraq war. One report quoting American intelligence sources had alleged that it was in fact Iran that was responsible for the gassing.

The Bush administration, wanting to avoid awkward questions about its culpability in human rights violations in the region, has set up what is in essence "a kangaroo court", sidestepping demands for an international tribunal comprised of independent jurists. The present Iraqi tribunal was set up with American taxpayers money; the U.S. government has set aside $750 million for the so-called "trial of the century". The New York Times has reported that the U.S.-led Regime Crimes Liaison Office has been the guiding force behind the tribunal and has been "often deciding on almost every facet of its work, always behind a shield of anonymity". The panel of judges were all trained in the U.S. for the event. American news reports have said that they have been tutored to keep Saddam Hussein and his co-defendants on a tight leash so that they do not raise uncomfortable questions about the role of Western leaders in the wars the region has witnessed in the past three decades. Furthermore, they will have no power to summon non-Iraqi witnesses whom the defence would want to be present.

A Chilean judge who led the legal fight against the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet has said that he doubts the ability of the Iraqi court to conduct a fair and free trial for the Iraqi leader. "Personally, I don't like the make-up of this tribunal because I don't think that it can be objective," retired judge Juan Guzman Tapia told The Washington Times on the day Saddam Hussein was produced in court. He is of the opinion that Saddam Hussein can get justice only from an international court. He said that instead of studying the evidence in the trial, the Iraqi tribunal already seems convinced of Saddam Hussein's guilt. Guzman said he could afford to be impartial in the Pinochet trial because neither he nor his relatives suffered directly under the military regime in Chile.

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