Saddam trial set to resume but comes under renewed criticism
BAGHDAD, Iraq – The troubled Saddam Hussein trial resumes today with a new judge and with international human rights groups saying political interference is threatening the tribunal’s independence.Saddam and his seven co-defendants are charged in the deaths of about 140 Shiite Muslims following an assassination attempt against the former Iraqi leader in the Shiite town of Dujail in 1982. The defendants could face death by hanging if convicted.The trial, which began Oct. 19, has been plagued by delays, chaotic outbursts by Saddam and the assassination of two defense lawyers.The proceeding was due to resume last Tuesday after a month’s break but was postponed for five days because court officials said some witnesses had not returned from the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.However, court officials told The Associated Press the main reason for the delay was that judges were upset by a decision to appoint and then remove another chief judge to replace Rizgar Mohammed Amin, a Kurd who stepped down Jan. 15.Chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Mousawi told the AP that Raouf Rasheed Abdel-Rahman, a Kurdish jurist, was expected to head the five-judge panel when the session resumes in the heavily guarded Green Zone.Amin cited health reasons for his decision. But politicians had complained about the slow pace of the proceedings and Amin’s patience in the face of frequent outbursts by Saddam and one of his co-defendants, Barzan Ibrahim.Amin’s deputy, Saeed al-Hammash, had been expected to take over as chief judge but was moved off the case after allegations he once was a member of Saddam’s Baath party. Al-Hammash, a Shiite, denied Baath membership and maintained he was the victim of a conspiracy.One of Saddam’s defense lawyers said his team would file several motions Sunday questioning the court’s independence and legitimacy because of Amin’s resignation.”The trial is going through a legal crisis,” lawyer Khamis al-Obeidi said. “The new chief judge needs a long time to familiarize himself with the details of the case.”He said Amin’s departure alone “is enough to prove that the trial is not fair.”Similar questions also were raised by Human Rights Watch, which expressed doubt even before the proceeding started in October about whether Saddam and the others could receive a fair trial before an Iraqi court.”The resignation of Judge Amin and the transfer of Judge al-Hammash mean that two of the five judges who have heard the witness testimony are now off the case,” Richard Dicker, a Human Rights Watch official, said in a statement. “It will be difficult for the new judges to impartially evaluate the testimony they missed, damaging the integrity of the trial.”Miranda Sissons of the International Center for Transitional Justice, an observer at the trial, also expressed concern about political pressure “and the degree of turnover” in the panel.”We need consistency and regularity for the court to have credibility,” she said by telephone from New York.The trial has been dogged with problems from the outset, and critics have questioned whether the proceedings could be held in a country wracked by insurgency, much of it led by the former president’s supporters. Shiites and Kurds, the communities that suffered the most under Saddam, now dominate the government.Only seven sessions have been held since the trial started, and three of the original five judges have been replaced. Two defense lawyers have been assassinated and a third fled the country in fear of his life.Saddam’s outbursts also have delayed the proceedings. He boycotted one session after thundering that “I will not come to an unjust court! Go to hell!”Ibrahim, his half brother and co-defendant, has been more belligerent, insulting a judge and the prosecutors and frequently interrupting the proceedings.Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, some of whose relatives were executed or tortured during the Saddam regime, has publicly complained of the trial’s slow pace.”We are not trying to land on the moon here,” he once said, arguing that Saddam’s crimes were beyond a shred of doubt.On Saturday, al-Jaafari said had the “highest consideration” and respect for Amin.”We are trying to convince him to continue his mission,” he said.One tribunal judge said efforts continued to persuade Amin to reconsider and that Abdel-Rahman, his replacement, may end up presiding over two or three sessions before his predecessor’s possible return. The judge spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity.—Associated Press reporter Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.