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Iraq: Jordanian Defense Lawyer Aims To Take On Saddam Case

Saddam Hussein after his capture It is not clear when Saddam Hussein will be tried. But two defense lawyers have already announced they are prepared to take up his case. This despite having had no contact with the deposed leader, who is being kept by U.S. forces in an unidentified location in Iraq. RFE/RL spoke to one of the candidates, Jordanian lawyer Muhammad Rashdan, who was hired by several members of Saddam Hussein's family.

Prague, 3 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Muhammad Rashdan says he is ready to prove Saddam Hussein's innocence.

The date and details of the former Iraqi leader's eventual trial remain unclear. But Rashdan and others are vying for the opportunity to defend Saddam Hussein on likely charges of ordering the use of poison gas against Iraqi Kurd civilians in 1988, persecution of Iraqi Shi'a in the 1980s and 1990s, and for alleged war crimes against Kuwait.

Rashdan, a Jordanian, says he was hired last December by Saddam Hussein's wife and three daughters. He is also a member of the Committee to Defend Saddam Hussein, a grouping of Arab lawyers working to facilitate Hussein's case.

Some legal experts say Hussein's POW status guarantees him the right to see a lawyer, and that the current treatment of the former leader is more like that of "enemy combatants" being held without charge or access to lawyers at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Rashdan is not the only one looking to be appointed Hussein's defense counsel. In March, the French lawyer Jacques Verge -- who has defended Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie and guerrilla Carlos the Jackal -- announced that he had been asked to represent the former Iraqi leader.

Verge said he received the invitation from another family member, a nephew of Saddam, Ali Barzan al-Tikriti. But Muhammad Rashdan said Saddam's family does not want the controversial French lawyer to be involved in the trial. "The name of Verge is well-known as [a lawyer] to gangsters and criminals and Nazis," he said. "We don't want somebody linked with these names to defend our Arab President Saddam Hussein, and neither does his family."

Rashdan said he has not yet met with Saddam Hussein, although he has several times asked the United States for permission to do so. "We argued that we have the right -- and we do have the right -- to see our client and they don't have the right to ask him anything without his lawyers being present," he said. "This is the basic right of anybody, not only of the president. There are thousands of Iraqi detainees without any accusation [being presented] being thrown in jail just because they are there [in Iraq]."

Representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross have twice been given access to the former leader, who turned 67 last week. But no private lawyers have had access to Hussein since he was captured on 13 December in a village close to his hometown of Tikrit.

He is currently being held by U.S. forces as a prisoner of war. Some legal experts say Hussein's POW status guarantees him the right to see a lawyer, and that the current treatment of the former leader is more like that of "enemy combatants" being held without charge or access to lawyers at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Julian Lindley-French, an analyst at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, told RFE/RL: "The lack of access, suggesting that his lawyers are having trouble in getting access to him, suggests that his actual state has not been defined properly. He's currently being treated as a prisoner of war. How does that affects the legal access in preparation of the defense of a criminal case? The relationship between the two does not seem to be clear. By that I mean that although he is not being treated formally as an enemy combatant, such as those in Guantanamo Bay, denial of access of lawyers, in effect, means the same thing."

Washington has indicated that it intends to turn the former leader over to Iraqi authorities soon after the 30 June transfer of sovereignty, and has taken steps toward aiding the formation of a local tribunal.

But such a move puts in doubt Hussein's relative protection as a POW under the Geneva Conventions, as well as whether a trial of Hussein by an Iraqi tribunal can be fair. The litany of complaints against Hussein is so long, and so severe, that it also raises the question whether a defense lawyer could ever hope to succeed.

Lindley-French said the case will be a challenge for whomever ultimately acts as Hussein's defense counsel. "Given the history, and given the anger, and given what seems to me the very well-documented activities of the Saddam Hussein regime, that would seem to be a very difficult defense," he said. "My guess is it would follow something along the lines of the defense being put forward by [former Yugoslav President] Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague --claiming that acts committed by the Ba'ath Party or indeed by servants of the government could not be directly linked to Saddam Hussein during his time in office."

Muhammad Rashdan said, should he ultimately be involved in the case, he will base his defense more on political matters than on Hussein as an individual. He argued the current U.S.-led war in Iraq is itself a criminal act that has violated all international agreements.

In the end, Rashdan said, Saddam Hussein is a victim of this war. "The president [Saddam Hussein] has immunity, like any other president," he said. "When the United States invaded Japan in 1945 or 1946 and conquered it, the emperor -- nobody talked to him. They signed the treaty and the emperor was immune. The immunity for the presidents or the leaders of a country in all the history before was honored and they were never taken to court. But the new era -- the American era, which we see now [the United States is] building -- will see new rules."

Given the chance to defend Hussein, Rashdan said, he will speak against these "new rules, which allowed the U.S. to occupy another country."