BAGHDAD – On what was to have been the day of the handover of sovereignty back to the Iraqi government, another symbolic handover took place. The U.S. army formally transferred Iraq’s former leader Saddam Hussein to the legal custody of the new government.
“I know just what I want done to Saddam,” says Hamid Faraj Hafez, chairman of the League of Iraqi Political Prisoners, and a victim of Saddam Hussein. “I want him put in jail for life to be a symbol of evil, just like Rudolph Hess in Spandau,” he said, referring to the German Nazi leader who was incarcerated in Berlin after World War II until he died decades later.
Saddam’s former political prisoners are excited that a trial of their nemesis is taking shape, though it could be months before it begins.
Saddam was produced before a judge Wednesday and told his rights. On Thursday he and 11 other senior members of his regime will be produced in court. For the first time the world will hear the charges against them.
New Prime Minister Iyad Allawi had insisted on the handover of Saddam as a concrete sign of the return of sovereignty to the Iraqi people after the occupation that began with the U.S.-led invasion in March last year. The Americans had initially balked at a quick transfer of Saddam. In the end they had little choice but to go along after Allawi made his position public.
The former political prisoners are curious about the case that will be presented against Saddam. And they are somewhat bitter that Salem Chalabi, director of the special tribunal that has been preparing the case has not consulted them.
“We have stacks of documents, we all have stories and we have so many eyewitness accounts,” says Tareq al-Shameri, spokesman for the prisoners’ league in his office that was once used by the Iraqi air force intelligence service.
Several rooms of the large villa are filled with papers from the archives of the former regime. “We have offered assistance but we haven’t heard back,” says al-Shameri.
The prospective lawyers of Saddam Hussein in the Jordanian capital Amman said earlier this week that none of the evidence matters. Their legal firm says it has been given a power of attorney to act on behalf of Saddam’s wife. “His excellency Saddam Hussein is still the legitimate President of Iraq,” Mohammed Rashdan from the firm said in a statement.
His colleague Osama Ghazzawi said the defense would challenge the legality of the proceedings. “Clearly the invasion was illegal because it was not condoned by the Security Council, and an arrest and a trial that are the result of an illegal act cannot be legal themselves.”
He doubted, though, that his client would get a fair trial in Iraq. “It will be a show trial, we are even afraid for our lives to go and defend him,” he said.
The Amman lawyers called the transfer of legal custody “as empty and meaningless as the so-called handover of sovereignty.”
So far the lawyers have been denied all contact with Saddam Hussein. The lawyers, a part of a larger group of 20 lawyers that also includes some international names is arguing for an international tribunal to try Saddam.
Tareq al-Shameri wants a joint Iraqi and international forum. “It is important that the whole world sees that he gets a fair trial and that he is convicted for his crimes, not just because we are his enemy,” says al-Shameri.
Chairman of the league Hafez stepped out of the room for a moment to illustrate the crimes of the former dictator. When he returned he had his false teeth with him in a cup. “Saddam did this to me himself,” he said.
He recounts that in 1981 he stumbled on a grave while carrying out a building project in New Baghdad. “The bodies were fresh, 12 people, two families of Shia clerics from Saddam City,” he says, using the old name for the sprawling Shia shantytown that is now called Sadr City. Hafez is a Shia himself and was familiar with the people in that neighborhood.
It was not the first time he had come across the cruelty of the regime, he says. His older brother Ibrahim was a senior leader of the communist party and the family had been hounded for that for years.
“After I found the grave the regime pursued me all the time,” he said. Eventually he was accused of assisting a senior scientist flee the country. Hafez says he never knew the man.
The trial held “in a hall that looked like a theatre” was chaired by Saddam Hussein in person, Hafez says.
The dictator did not say much during the proceedings but “at the end he came up to me and said ‘your tongue is too loose we should cut it out,'” Hafez said. He says he was ordered to put his arms on the bench and Saddam broke the bones in each with a mighty chop.
“I fainted after that and only woke up in the police car,” he says. His mouth was bleeding and he could not feel his teeth. “The officer who took me told me that Saddam had done that himself.”
He spent the next 20 years in jail and under house arrest. He says he saw Saddam Hussein torturing and killing people after the 1991 Shia uprising that followed the Gulf War. Eventually in 2001 Hafez says he managed to escape to the Kurdish north of the country.
Hafez wants Saddam to get a fair trial, even though he was denied one himself. “He will be convicted anyway, his evil is so obvious.”