Saddam Hussein’s trial was to resume today, a day after court officials named a new chief judge and ousted another jurist off the five-member panel trying the former Iraqi leader.
The changes raised new questions about the fairness of the process and provided yet more signs of disarray in a trial already marked by delays, assassinations and chaotic courtroom outbursts by Saddam.
The new chief judge will be Raouf Rasheed Abdel-Rahman, who like his predecessor is a Kurd. Abdel-Rahman was born in Halabja, the town where Saddam’s forces allegedly launched a poison gas attack in 1988 that killed 5,000 Kurds. Some relatives of Abdel-Rahman were among the dead, according to his family.
Saddam is expected to eventually go on trial for the Halabja deaths. But the current trial, which began on October 19 and was holding its eighth session today, is for the killings of about 140 Shiites in a crackdown that followed a failed assassination attempt in 1982 against the former ruler in Dujail, 50 miles north of Baghdad.
Saddam and seven co-defendants could face the death penalty if convicted in the Dujail case. Abdel-Rahman has served on a backup panel and has been following the trial since it began on Oct. 25, officials said.
The shake-up came when the first chief judge, Rizgar Mohammed Amin, submitted his resignation on January 15 after complaints by politicians and officials that he failed to maintain control of the proceedings.
Initially, court officials said Amin would be replaced by his deputy, Saeed al-Hammash, a Shiite. However, the government commission responsible for purging members of Saddam’s Baath Party complained last week that al-Hammash should not serve as chief judge because of his one-time membership in the former ruling party.
Al-Hammash was transferred off the case entirely, though court official Raid Juhi insisted the move was not connected to the Baath allegation.
The 64-year-old Abdel-Rahman has served as an appeals court judge in the autonomous northern region of Kurdistan.
In his first move at the Saddam trial, the new chief judge underlined strict regulations on media – perhaps an attempt to signal he will run a tighter court.
A statement given to reporters before the trial began banned them from revealing the identity of the building in which the trial is being held, its location or security measures at the site – even though such information has been reported in the past.
Journalists are also banned from reporting comments made by defendants in open court sessions on how they are brought to and from the court from detention. Saddam has complained in court previously about how he was moved to the building.
Reporters are watching the trial from a press gallery that is separated from the courtroom by glass, listening the process by headsets. A curtain is drawn when the session goes into recess or is adjourned.
“Members of the press are not permitted to make contact with anyone in the courtroom while in the Media Gallery by any means including hand gestures, signs, or passing of notes,” the statement said.
Saddam’s legal team said it was more concerned about alleged government pressure on the court than who serves as chief judge.
“We don’t care who is the presiding judge,” lawyer Khamis al-Obeidi said.
“But we will pull the rug from under his feet if he succumbs to the influence of the government.”
Al-Obeidi said he and other defence lawyers met with Saddam for more than six hours on Sunday and decided to seek a further adjournment unless the court responds in writing to some of the motions submitted in previous hearings. These include a 20-page memo questioning the court’s legitimacy, he said.
The team included former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark and Washington-based lawyer Curtis Doebbler.
The latest changes add to the charged atmosphere surrounding the trial and may further raise questions about the fairness of the proceedings. Two defence lawyers have been assassinated and a third fled the country since the trial began.
“It is increasingly clear that this doesn’t look like justice the way it’s supposed to be rendered,” said William Schabas, director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland. “The fact that judges in a trial resign for facts other than ill health is very disturbing.”
In the seven previous sessions, the silver-haired Amin displayed remarkable patience and composure in the face of what appeared to be attempts by Saddam, his half brother Barzan Ibrahim and the defence team to delay or derail the proceedings.
Saddam has complained that he was tortured, openly prayed in court when Amin would not allow a recess and frequently lectured the judge on patriotism. Barzan, a one-time chief of Saddam’s intelligence, has been more belligerent, insulting witnesses, one of the judges and the three prosecutors.
The trial has been divisive in a post-Saddam Iraq where sectarian tensions fuelled by a Sunni-led insurgency are threatening to tear the country apart. Sunni Arabs loyal to the former leader took heart from Saddam’s outbursts during the hearings, which are televised nationwide with a 30-minute delay.
But Shiites and Kurds, including senior politicians who had opposed Saddam’s rule for decades, found the relative freedom he has had in the courtroom an affront to the memory of his victims and the feelings of their families.