Saddam’s Sham Trial

29 January 2006

Saddam’s Sham Trial

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s easy to tell the difference between the trial of Saddam Hussein and the Nuremberg tribunal. That was a grave and dignified affair; Saddam’s trial is more like a French farce, with a large and confusing cast of characters who rush onto the stage to deliver a few lines and then vanish again. But it’s a pretty black comedy: seven people associated with the trial, including two defence lawyers, have been assassinated since it began on 19 October, and another defence lawyer has fled Iraq in fear of his life.

The court has only been in session for eight days since October, and the last day was the worst yet. The new chief judge, Raouf Abdel Rahman, took over last Sunday with such a heavy hand that within a hour he had one of the defendants, Saddam’s brother-in-law Barzan al-Tikriti, ejected from the court for complaining about his health care (he has cancer), and then expelled his lawyer as well.

When the other defence lawyers walked out in sympathy, the chief judge ruled that they would not be allowed back and appointed different lawyers to conduct the defence. And when Saddam rejected those court-appointed lawyers and made to leave the courtroom, he was first physically restrained by the guards — and then the judge ordered him to leave. It’s hard to muster any sympathy for the old tyrant, but the courtroom is a zoo.

Former US attorney general Ramsay Clark has bluntly called the trial “lawless”. It is now on its third chief judge, the first one having resigned two weeks ago because of official criticism that he was being too meticulous about observing Saddam’s rights, and the second having effectively been fired after a few days when it came out that he was an ex-Baathist.

The new chief judge certainly does not suffer from that problem. In fact, Raouf Abdel Rahman is a Kurd from the town of Halabja, the very place where Saddam is accused of having killed thousands of people in a poison-gas attack in 1988. It’s a bit like having a concentration-camp survivor as chief judge at Nuremberg — poetic justice, perhaps, but liable to generate considerable doubts about the fairness and impartiality of the court.

However, Saddam is not being tried for the atrocity at Halabja, nor indeed for any other crime that the world had heard about before this trial started: the aggression against Iran, for example, or the slaughter of the Shias who responded to George Bush senior’s summons to revolt at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991. Those topics are off-limits because one way or another they implicate the United States in his crimes.

Instead, he is being tried for the torture and execution of some 146 people whom he suspected of being involved in an assassination attempt against him in the village of Dujail in 1982. In theory, he might be tried later on for some of his larger crimes, too, but in practice that won’t happen because the new Iraqi law decrees that all appeals must be completed and a death sentence carried out within thirty days of the accused being found guilty.

“We’ll give him a fair trial and then we’ll hang him,” as they used to say in old Western movies. Saddam Hussein has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Iranians and others over the past 35 years, so a great many people want to see him hang — but the bit about the “fair trial” is necessary, and he simply isn’t getting one. Why not?

For the same reason that the leading Nazi figures who survived the war could not have got a fair trial in a German court in 1946. Most of the German professionals who might served in such a court were ineligible because they had collaborated in one way or another during the years of Nazi rule, and anti-Nazi resisters, mostly recently returned from exile, would not have had much credibility sitting in judgement on their former tormentors. It had to be an international court, and therefore the crimes also had to be international: not just killing Germans, but waging aggressive war and committing genocide.

It would have been possible to try Saddam Hussein and his companions before an international court, too. In fact, it would have been a lot easier than it was in1945, since there are now many precedents for such a court. But an international court would have had to try Saddam on charges of waging aggressive war (against Iran and Kuwait) and pursuing a policy of genocide (against the Kurds), which would have brought up all sorts of awkward history from the days when the US and Saddam Hussein were effectively allies.

So from Washington’s point of view, Saddam had to be tried in an Iraqi court. Given the chaotic incompetence of the Iraqi regime that has been created by the occupation forces, the ludicrous spectacle that is unfolding before our eyes in the courtroom in Baghdad then became inevitable.

Raouf Abdel Rahman and his fellow judges will find Saddam guilty, no doubt, and then they will hang him as fast as possible. But the court is accomplishing the improbable feat of turning this monster of a man into a hero and a martyr in the eyes of many people across the Arab world, and even in Iraq itself.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“We’ll…genocide”)