Quandary Over Saddam’s Defense

DUBAI – The rumor mill has been hard at work since Saddam Hussein first appeared before an Iraqi investigative judge after his December capture. The questions, now, are who will defend the former Iraqi president and will he get a fair trail under the new government.

At his arraignment on July 1, the former Iraqi president refused to sign a charge sheet with preliminary charges against him saying he would do so after consulting with his lawyer.

But Saddam has not yet chosen one and neither has he indicated whether he will accept a court-appointed lawyer or seek legal advice from a Jordan-based team appointed by his wife and three daughters.

It is yet to be seen whether Iraqi officials will allow the team, headed by Mohammad Rashdan, to represent the former Iraqi dictator. The issue now has become a legal, social and political hot potato.

Rashdan’s defense team also includes lawyers from Lebanon, Tunisia, Libya the United States, Britain and Belgium.

Salem Chalabi, the head of the Special Iraqi Tribunal set up to try the regime’s former officials, said only Iraqi lawyers would be allowed to play the lead defense role. This was also agreed upon by Iraq’s interim justice minister, Malek Hassan.

On the question of whether foreign legal experts – Arab or Western – will be allowed to help the Iraqi defense team, both said it is a decision the Iraqi government would make later.

The now defunct U.S.-appointed Governing Council set up a war crimes tribunal and chose judges to try Saddam, who was captured in December.

Some Arabs still see him as a nationalist hero who stood up to U.S. military might.

U.S. officials had hoped to delay proceedings against Saddam until the Iraqis set up a special court and trained a legal team.

But Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, whose government regained sovereignty on June 28, insisted publicly on taking legal custody of Saddam quickly. The Americans agreed on condition they keep him under U.S. lock and key.

The sentiment for not allowing any foreign intervention in Saddam’s trial has support within the Iraqi population.

“I swear to you all if any foreign lawyers set foot in Iraq to defend Saddam, then the men of my tribe will cut them into pieces,” Sheikh Ghazi al-Waali said during a seminar held in Baghdad last week.

The meeting, attended by various Iraqi legal experts, was held to discuss the legal procedures of the tribunal set up under the Allawi government.

But raw nerves soon manifested themselves and the gathering turned into a smoldering debate on the legality on the tribunal itself.

“This tribunal is illegal,” Rashdan told IPS. “We know the [Iraqi] law and we will insist on it. That law [of the former regime] is still valid and it says an Arab lawyer does not need to be accompanied by an Iraqi lawyer.”

Rashdan and others say their objection to the tribunal and its proceedings are two-fold.

“This court was established under the occupation of a foreign power and that in itself makes its existence questionable,” he explained.

“Second [former U.S. civil administrator] Paul Bremer changed the law to bar non-Iraqi lawyers from representation in the court and he had no right doing so,” Rashdan added.

Rashdan says he is still in negotiation with Chalabi over the issue and does not rule out the possibility that he and his team might accept a “consulting” role to an Iraqi lawyer.

“The most important thing right now is for us to meet with President Saddam Hussein. Meeting with the lawyer is the most important right a defendant has,” he stressed. “Once we have done that, we have a [defense] strategy which we will publicise only after getting his approval.”

Short of being able to move the trial out of Iraq, one strategy is to broaden the scope of the trial and turn it into a pan-Arab issue, arguing an Arab leader has been unjustly toppled – one who stayed in power for decades with the help of the West.

Rashdan said his goal is to “turn the trial into an Arab-African event."

And he said he has already succeeded to some degree.

“I plan to travel from Libya to Morocco to Sudan and maybe Eritrea. We have received offers from lawyers all over the Middle East and Africa,” Rashdan told IPS.

According to his Amman office, it has a growing list of at least 100 volunteers from 20 countries, including Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.

Included in the expanded defense team is Aisha Gaddafi – daughter of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. She is a certified lawyer and legal expert and who, according to Rashdan, has referred to Saddam Hussein as “someone I love like a father.”

It is not clear whether Rashdan’s efforts to broaden the defense team is related to the hope to receiving financial support from various quarters for himself and his team members, whom he says work pro-bono and with no support from Saddam’s family.

Rashdan says Libya and other unnamed countries, as well as Arab and international organizations have offered financial help. He has not disclosed the amounts.

But the strategy to turn Saddam’s trial into a political showcase concerns many Iraqi officials. And they have said they plan to prevent this from happening.

“This will be a bona-fide legal trial, based on evidence and witnesses,” said Mowaffaq Rabiee, the national security advisor of the new interim Iraqi government.

“Saddam will try to turn this into a farce and we simply will not allow that,” he told IPS.

Read more by Peyman Pejman