The chief judge in Saddam Hussein’s genocide trial was replaced today amid complaints from Shiite and Kurdish officials that he was too soft on the former Iraqi leader, a move that could raise accusations of government interference in the highly sensitive case.
Abdullah al-Amiri was replaced on the five-member panel by his deputy in the trial, Mohammed al-Uraibiy, said a court official.
Al-Uraibiy is a Shiite Muslim Arab, the official said.
The Iraqi High Tribunal, the country’s supreme court, made the request in a letter to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who approved it.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabagh said the Prime Minister exercised his right under court regulations to transfer a judge to another, higher court.
A lawyer defending senior officials in Saddam’s former regime, including former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, decried the move as purely political.
“This was a coup that succeeded. There was no legal reason for removing him (al-Amiri),” Badee Izzat Aref said.
“They (court officials) felt that he would not respond to their demands,” he said.
Hussein al-Duri, an aide to the prime minister, said one reason for al-Amiri’s dismissal was the judge’s comments last week in a court session, in which he told Saddam, “You were not a dictator”.
“The head of the court is requested to run and control the session, and he is not allowed to violate judicial regulations,” al-Duri told Al-Arabiya television. “It is not allowed for the judge to express his opinion.”
Al-Amiri’s comment angered many Kurds and Shiites, fuelling their criticism that he was too lenient with Saddam. Prosecutors had already asked for al-Amiri to be replaced after he allowed Saddam to lash out at Kurdish witnesses during a court session.
The change could revive complaints that the government is interfering in the tribunal trying Saddam and his regime members to ensure a quick guilty verdict.
In the current trial, Saddam faces a possible death penalty if convicted on genocide charges over the Anfal military offensive against Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s.
In Saddam’s first trial – over alleged atrocities against Shiites in the town of Dujail – the chief judge stepped down halfway through the 9-month-long proceedings, saying he could no longer put up with criticism from officials that he was too lenient in allowing courtroom outbursts by Saddam and his co-defendants.
He was replaced by a far tougher judge who several times threw out defendants and defence lawyers he said were out of line.
A verdict in the Dujail trial is expected on October 16.