Three gunmen in a speeding car killed a defence lawyer in the Saddam Hussein trial and wounded another today in Western Baghdad.
It was the second assassination of a defence lawyer in the trial and raised doubts whether such an emotionally-charged case can proceed in this turbulent country.
Adel al-Zubeidi, who was representing former Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, was shot dead and lawyer Thamir al-Khuzaie was wounded in the ambush in the predominantly Sunni Arab neighbourhood of Adil, police said.
Saddam’s main lawyer, halil al-Dulaimi, blamed the government for today’s attack, telling Al-Jazeera television that the shooting was carried by “an armed group using government vehicles.”
“The aim of these organised attacks is to scare Arab and foreign lawyers,” al-Dulaimi said. “We call upon the international community, on top of them the Secretary-General of the United Nations, to send an investigative committee because the situation is unbearable.”
He called for moving Saddam and his colleagues into a neutral country. Al-Dulaimi said defence lawyers do not recognise the trial’s next date, which comes on November 28.
Al-Dulaimi’s call was echoed by Richard Goldstone, the first prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and one of the world’s most prominent jurists.
“I don’t understand how you can have a fair trial in this atmosphere of insecurity, with bombs going off,” Goldstone said.
“It is just impossible to have a public trial if you can’t guarantee the safety of witnesses, judges of defence counsel.”
He said: “Without a radical improvement in security, I don’t see any possibility of having an appropriate trial in Baghdad.” He suggested the trial be moved to another Arab country “where there is security.”
Saddam and seven others have been charged with the 1982 killings of Shiite villagers in Dujail, a town north of Baghdad, following an assassination attempt against the leader.
The trial opened on October 19 and was suspended until late November to allow the defence time to prepare its case.
On October 20, Saadoun al-Janabi, was abducted from his office by 10 masked gunmen, a day after he attended the first session of the trial, acting as the lawyer for co-defendant Awad al-Bandar.
Al-Janabi’s body was found hours later with two bullet wounds to the head near his office in Baghdad.
Al-Zubeidi also represented Abdullah Kazim Ruwayyid, a former Baath party official. Al-Khuzaie represents Saddam’s half brother, co-defendant Barazan Ibrahim.
Police Lt. Khalid Hassan said the two lawyers were driving through the Adil neighbourhood today when an Opel car with a driver and three masked gunmen pulled alongside and sprayed their car with automatic weapons fire.
Chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Mousawi expressed regret over the attack against “our colleagues in the judiciary” and said the court would do everything possible “to arrange security for the lawyers.”
“God willing this incident will not affect the coming session,” al-Mousawi said.
However, Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, said the latest attack shows that the Iraqi government needs “to reassess whether the conditions guaranteeing rights of every defendant exist.”
“It is clear that whatever the government is doing is not working and is not adequate,” she said.
“They have to go back and figure out how to create conditions necessary for a fair trial, above all the safety of the defence team.”
Some international human rights organisations already had raised questions about the conduct of Saddam’s trial and their concerns mounted after al-Janabi was killed.
Following al-Janabi’s death, members of the defence team said they had suspended further dealings with the special court until their safety is guaranteed.
Al-Ubaidi said the entire defence team had rejected an offer of guards from the Interior Ministry, pointing to frequent Sunni Arab accusations that ministry forces or Shiite militias linked to the government have killed members of the minority that was dominant under Saddam.
He said then that they were talking with US officials about getting protection from American troops.
But a later defence team statement said that it would seek United Nations protection for the Iraqi lawyers because they do not trust either the US military or the Iraqi government to ensure their safety.
Saddam’s defence team, which includes some 1,500 lawyers who act as advisers, is led by al-Dulaimi and Abdel Haq Alani, an Iraqi-born lawyer based in Britain. Alani is the top legal consultant to Saddam’s daughter, Raghad, and believed to be backbone of defence team.
Alani said the latest killing confirmed defence fears that defence lawyers were being systematically targeted.
“How do they expect a trial to proceed if the lawyers fear for their lives? How can we call witnesses to take the stand in court?” he said. “This is a sham, not a trial.”
Alani blamed the Bush administration for the turmoil in Iraq, including today’s assassination.
“The whole trial, the bloodshed in Iraq, the killings, the violence and everything else wouldn’t have happened, had the Americans not invaded Iraq,” Alani said.
“After invasion and occupation, the occupying power is responsible for protecting the lives of the people under occupation.”