The Magazine

Iraq on Trial

The international community weighs in on the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal.

Oct 31, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 07 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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RICHARD DICKER OF THE NEW York-based international monitoring outfit Human Rights Watch remembers how "distressing" it was, in those first weeks and months after the liberation of Baghdad, to watch nightly news footage of ordinary Iraqis "desperately uncovering and excavating mass graves and seizing thousands of pages of government documents, in an attempt to determine the fate of missing and 'disappeared' relatives." Oddly enough, however, it wasn't the horror and unfathomable grief on display that Dicker remembers being distressed by. Nope. What really bugged him was the obliviousness and indiscipline of the mourners.

The nerve of those peasant Iraqis: tramping their footprints all over the place, throwing dirt in the air, clutching bare-handed at their murdered children's skeletons, spilling their teardrops hither and yon--and thereby contaminating the crime scene! Hadn't these people ever watched CSI? And hadn't it occurred to the American GIs who were helping the Iraqis make such shortsighted, selfish exhumations that what they should have been doing, instead, was implementing a "coherent strategy to protect sites of potential importance to future prosecutions"? Evidently not. What blockheads.

"Crucial forensic evidence was lost in the process," Dicker points out--just as chain-of-custody requirements were ignored in the Iraqi people's frantic search through millions of pages of Baath party archival records, raising "serious concerns about the integrity of the documents and their potential evidentiary value" in any subsequent prosecution of Baath party mass murders.

Yet just such a prosecution is now underway in Baghdad, despite these and many other, similarly "grave" complaints that Dicker and Human Rights Watch--echoed by right thinking people everywhere--have leveled against the new Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal. And there's no guarantee that so "deficient" a court can provide its most prominent defendant, a certain Mr. Saddam Hussein, the full and fair trial he deserves. Something's got to change but quick, Dicker warns, or Iraq's de-Baathified judiciary is going to have a next-to-impossible task "establishing its credibility" with the "international community."

Indeed. New York Times Baghdad correspondent John F. Burns noted last week that "Western human rights groups" and other "critics here and abroad" would have preferred that Saddam be tried before "an international tribunal of the kind that has spent four years hearing the case against the former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic." It was not Burns's assignment to elaborate on what this means, but we'll do it for him: The war-crimes tribunal in The Hague is an unmitigated fiasco. Its televised proceedings have made Milosevic more--not less--popular and influential back home in Serbia. His two most important, would-be codefendants, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, are still at large, though one of them, Karadzic, wanted for the massacre of some 20,000 Bosnians, is hardly bothering to hide at all, having just brought out a book of lyric poetry intriguingly titled Under the Century's Left Teat. Karadzic's successor as Serbia's president, Biljana "Iron Lady" Plavsic--the Yugoslav tribunal's one and only significant conviction to date--will soon be done with the modest sentence she's serving in Sweden's Hinseberg prison. That prison, by the way, is in a converted mansion overlooking a lake. There's a sauna, a place for piano recitals, en suite bathrooms, and a horse-riding paddock, too. The prison shop sells ice cream.

Begging Richard Dicker's pardon, but this is not what the great mass of Iraqi citizens have in mind for the man who butchered their fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers and daughters and sons by the hundreds of thousands for 35 years--crimes of which not even the noble souls at Human Rights Watch can bring themselves to presume Saddam innocent. The great mass of Iraqi citizens intend, instead, to watch as an Iraqi trial, of a deposed Iraqi dictator, unfolds in their Iraqi living rooms, gavel-to-gavel on Iraqi TV.

It began last Wednesday, at a specially fashioned courtroom in Baghdad's Green Zone. Presiding Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin--risking assassination by allowing his name and face to appear on camera--first asked Saddam and his codefendants to identify themselves. Then he confirmed that each man was represented by counsel. And then the judge spent 30 full minutes reading the prisoners an impressively long list of their rights. Which was all by itself enough: By the time the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Court adjourned, in just a few short hours, the trial of Saddam Hussein had already earned its place as the fairest trial seen anywhere in the Arab world since at least the end of the British Mandate.

The "international community" will be sure to let us know when Iraq's besieged, infant democracy at last does something that meets their approval, won't they?

--David Tell, for the Editors