High crimes

Iraq | An Iraqi-led tribunal commences-then delays-the historic war crimes trial of Saddam Hussein

Issue: "Malaria: Kill or be killed," Oct. 29, 2005

If past is prologue then Iraqis are having none of it. Three years to the day after a compulsory vote gave Saddam Hussein a 100 percent mandate to rule the country for seven more years, Iraqis voted to approve a new constitution as a forerunner to electing a new government. Four days later they put the former dictator on trial.

Baghdad streets emptied Oct. 19 as most Iraqis headed home or to the houses of friends to watch the televised proceedings against Saddam-determined, according to popular blogger Omar Fadhil, to "watch the trial together just like we lived what led to this day together." Some residents said they stored extra fuel for their generators, just in case the trial outlasted Baghdad's sporadic electricity.

The trial lasted only three hours before chief judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin granted a defense motion to adjourn until Nov. 28. The proceeding lasted long enough for one scuffle between Saddam and his prison guards (Saddam refused to be led by the arm from the courtroom for a break) and one heated confrontation between Saddam and the judge when the former dictator insisted on being identified as the president of Iraq.

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The trial was also long enough for the first of what could be five cases brought against Saddam and his officials. The first case is the smallest by far: the torture and massacre of 150 residents in the town of Dujail after a failed attempt there on Saddam's life. The charges to be heard next month are more serious and complex:

  • Saddam's military crackdown on the Kurds, named the Anfal Operation, in which approximately 180,000 people were killed in the late 1980s.
  • Thousands of deaths, imprisonments, and torture cases to suppress Kurdish and Shiite revolts in 1991.
  • A 1988 poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, which killed 5,000.

A guilty verdict on one or more war crimes charges seems all but assured. After all, despite Saddam's assertion of innocence last week, he helped construct the case against himself during a long rule marked in many instances by punctilious recordkeeping. Extensive government documents attest that 4,000 villages were "purified"-or bulldozed and destroyed-during the Anfal campaign.

U.S. Marines and journalists also discovered a vault beneath Saddam's Baghdad security directorate shortly after U.S. forces liberated Iraq. Two times the size of a basketball court, it contained tens of thousands of files documenting sentences carried out against alleged enemies of the state. In one instance, a 19-year-old high-school student confessed to leading an opposition political group on campus. "The court on 28 March 1987 ordered he be hanged," according to his file folder, "and all his movable property seized."

Nevertheless, international human-rights monitors will scrutinize proceedings in the court, known as the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal, for abuse of the celebrity-prisoner. Human Rights Watch, which helped uncover documentation surrounding the Anfal campaign, last week protested the court's makeup and the limited access it gave defense lawyers to Saddam.

Most Iraqis aren't so conflicted. Flipping channels with purple-stained fingers proving they've just been to the polls, they know putting the past behind them means facing Saddam and his crimes.


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