New York Times
January 29, 2006
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Jan. 29 -- The trial of Saddam Hussein erupted into chaos today, with the new chief judge ordering all four primary defendants removed from the courtroom and tried in absentia. One was taken out kicking and screaming, and the entire defense team walked out in protest of the judge's action.
The new judge, Raouf Abdel-Rahman, made clear as soon as the trial reconvened after a monthlong recess that he would not tolerate the lengthy political diatribes by Mr. Hussein and his fellow defendant Barzan Ibrahim al Tikriti that have dominated the trial since it began on Oct. 19.
The judge soon made good on his warnings, and Mr. Ibrahim who had twice called the court "a daughter of adultery" and refused to obey Judge Abdel Rahman's commands, was dragged howling from the courtroom by four bailiffs. One of the lawyers, Saleh Armouti, then began screaming at the judge, and he too was dragged out. Mr. Hussein then had a furious exchange with the judge, but left before the bailiffs could be ordered to remove him.
"Don't call yourself an Iraqi," Mr. Hussein yelled, after Judge Abdel-Rahman told him he would be ejected. "I've led you for 35 years and now you say, 'Remove him!' Shame on you, shame on you!"
The courtroom showdown raised the extraordinary prospect of a war crimes trial being conducted without the presence of the major defendants or their lawyers. Judge Abdel-Rahman warned the departing lawyers several times that they would not be allowed back in once they left, and he promptly replaced them with a team of six court-appointed lawyers who sat silently as the trial proceeded for another three hours.
The walkout also suggested a deliberate defense strategy to give the tribunal the appearance of a show trial. Mr. Hussein's lead lawyer, Khalil Dulaimi, issued a call this evening for the trial to be moved out of Iraq, saying the judge's decision to eject the defendants and their lawyers had made a fair trial impossible.
"What happened today is a shameful moment in the history of the Iraqi judiciary," said Mr. Dulaimi, who added that the defense team would only agree to return if a list of conditions were met, all of them very unlikely, including a public apology to the lawyer who was thrown out.
The original defense team could be allowed back if they file a formal legal request, said Raid Juhi, the chief investigative judge on the tribunal, who spoke to reporters after the court session. The four defendants could also be allowed back if they commit themselves to behaving properly in the courtroom, Judge Juhi said.
But Mr. Dulaimi's conditions made a return by the lawyers look unlikely. And it seemed unlikely that Judge Abdel-Rahman would go back on his word after repeatedly warning the lawyers that he would not let them back in.
A trial without Saddam Hussein could be an embarrassment for the United States government, which has worked hard to help create a tribunal that would be perceived by Iraqis as independent and fair. The current trial, relating to the massacre of 148 Shiite men and boys in the village of Dujail in 1982, is the first of several that are planned, but it is expected to last through late May.
"War crimes trials are always messy, but holding this trial in absentia would be extremely troubling to a lot of people," said Miranda Sissons, a senior associate at the International Center for Transitional Justice, who is observing the trial.
Another troubling sign, Ms. Sissons noted, was the apparent passivity of the new court-appointed lawyers. They said nothing during three hours of testimony this afternoon, even as prosecutors and the judge peppered the witnesses with questions about accusations of torture and executions ordered by Mr. Hussein and his lieutenants.
In November, the original defense team threatened to boycott the trial, but relented after the former presiding judge, Rizgar Muhammad Amin, agreed to give the defendants more time to speak in the courtroom. In the weeks that followed, Mr. Hussein and Mr. Ibrahim virtually took control of the courtroom, unleashing frequent broadsides against the tribunal and complaining about ill treatment.
Judge Amin resigned from the tribunal earlier this month, saying he was fed up with a torrent of criticism from high-level Iraqi officials about his handling of the trial. President Jalal Talabani and other Iraqi leaders tried to persuade Judge Amin to reconsider, apparently hoping to avoid the impression that the judge had been forced out through political pressure.
Judge Abdel-Rahman set a new tone as soon as the court came to order this morning.
"I can see that it is my duty to underline what Imam Ali said, that if your power has led you to oppress people, remember the judgment will be on you," he said, in a reference to the founding saint of Shiite Islam. Many of Mr. Hussein's victims were Shiites.
Judge Abdel-Rahman banged his gavel angrily when Mr. Armouti insistently shouted questions at him, talking over the lawyer until he fell silent.
But it was not until Mr. Ibrahim began talking that the judge made clear that he would not accept any of the rants that became commonplace in earlier sessions.
"Political speeches have no place in this courtroom," Judge Abdel-Rahman said. "You must abide by the rules. Any irrelevant remarks will be struck from the record, and anyone who breaks the rules will be removed from the courtroom and tried as if he were present."