The Blog

Saddam Hussein: On Trial

His lawyer thinks that "President Hussein" could be back in power within a year. Seriously.

12:00 AM, Sep 29, 2005 • By DAN SENOR
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

MUCH LIKE Iraq's "purple finger" election in January, a trial will begin in October that could help change the lens through which Arabs see their world. For the first time, an Arab despot, Saddam Hussein, will be tried by his own people. The trial will be beamed by satellite into millions of Arab homes and around the globe. It will afford a peek into the depths of human evil and, embarrassingly, if incidentally, into the concurrent indifference of Western nations to Iraqi suffering. Thus far, the accountability of Nuremberg, the Hague, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone has eluded Arab-Muslim leaders. This is about to change.

Iraq's "trial of the century" will actually be broken up into 12 to 14 separate trials, each built around a specific crime, rather than a specific defendant. Every regime official implicated in each crime will be tried at the same time. This is the inverse of what Americans are accustomed to in our legal system, where suspected criminals are tried separately.

This promises a lengthier, clunkier process that will not always be focused on Saddam. One hopes that press coverage will not dwindle as a result. (Today at the Hague, there are only three organizations still covering the trial of Slobodan Milosevic. While not directly comparable to Saddam's case, it is no less disheartening that the world has long since lost interest.)

The crimes that will be prosecuted by Iraq's Special Tribunal include:

* The 1987-88 Anfal campaign, a depopulation plan in which hundreds of thousands of Kurds were killed or expelled from northern Iraq.

* Mortar bombardment of the city of Kirkuk.

* Saddam's suppression of a Shiite uprising following the first Gulf War, which resulted in thousands buried in mass graves.

* Forced emigration of thousands of Fayli (Shiite) Kurds, who were pushed from northern Iraq into Iran.

* The killing of an estimated 5,000 people in a 1988 chemical weapons attack on Halabja, a Kurdish town.

* The execution of 8,000 members of the Barzani tribe, a powerful Kurdish community.

* The 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which Iraqi forces occupied for seven months.

* Execution of prominent political and religious figures.

* Crimes against religious and secular political parties.

* The drying of the southern marshes, following the 1991 Shiite uprising, in which Saddam ordered the building of dams, canals and dikes to drain the Mesopotamian marshlands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The first trial will be for one of the "smaller" crimes: a massacre in the small city of Dujail, about 35 miles north of Baghdad. It was in this town that a handful of Iraqis attempted to assassinate Saddam in 1982 as his motorcade was passing through. The regime's response was the razing of the entire city and collective punishment that resulted in the deaths of 150 locals.

Why start with the relatively unknown Dujail massacre, rather than Halabjah or the mass graves? The view of U.S. government officials was that Saddam's biggest crimes should be spotlighted at the beginning of the process, when international attention will likely be at its peak. But that view did not prevail. The Iraqi Special Tribunal elected to start with the case that is air-tight and easiest to prosecute. As Iraqi Tribunal officials see it, the momentum for the trials would be blunted if Saddam got off on a technicality on the first trial. Furthermore, the Iraqi prosecutors anticipate Saddam will borrow some rhetorical and theatrical tricks from Slobodan Milosevic. Indeed, Saddam has studied his performance at the Hague. So the Iraqi Tribunal believes it's better to let him exhaust these tactics on the smallest trial, before he has to answer for chemical attacks and mass graves.

SADDAM'S LEGAL STRATEGY, as explained to me by a leading member of the defense team--Abdul Haq al-Ani, retained by Saddam's daughter--is fourfold:

* Argue that the war that overthrew Saddam was illegal under international law and, hence, Saddam is still legally president. If he's still president and his regime still sovereign, then the Saddam-era Iraqi Constitution--which gives him full immunity--must prevail.

To al-Ani, it is meaningless that millions of Iraqis voted for a new post-Saddam government last January, and that the newly-elected government has been recognized by the U.N. Security Council. "The Security Council does not have the authority to breach the charter that created it," he told me in his home. And a correct reading of that charter, he says, would interpret as illegal the war that preceded post-Saddam Iraq.