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Iraq: Hussein Trial Chief Judge Answers Criticism

Saddam Hussein addressing the court in December (epa) Rizgar Muhammad Amin, the chief judge on the Iraqi Special Tribunal, which is hearing the case of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and seven of his codefendants on charges of crimes against humanity, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) in two interviews on 13 January that it is necessary to allow the defendants in the Al-Dujayl trial the opportunity to speak, even though their comments often disrupt the proceedings.

(To read a transcript of RFI's 13 January interview, click here.)

Speaking with an RFI correspondent in Al-Sulaymaniyah, Amin rejected assertions that the trial has been turned into a platform for Hussein and his codefendants to voice their opinions.

"The court has not been turned into a political tribune," Amin said. "Nevertheless, it is not possible to deny that the defendants have – to a larger or smaller extent – some relation to politics. I am convinced that justice is democratic in its nature. I am convinced in the freedom of the defendant to speak out or to keep silent, within the limits of law. Swearing is not acceptable. Such occurrence inside courts is, however, something natural. [Swearing] can be witnessed almost daily in courtrooms due to the emotions and conflicts between the parties of the case. But in those cases, they are not seen and heard on television by masses of people."

Looking To Step Down

Amin is reportedly seeking to tender his resignation as chief judge for the tribunal, citing government pressure for a speedy trial, his associates told Western press agencies on 15 January. RFI asked Amin on 12 January about rumors of his resignation, to which he responded, "No comment."

Amin has been widely criticized in the press for appearing too conciliatory in the courtroom, after allowing Hussein and others considerable time to speak out about issues unrelated to the trial. Iraqis have also criticized Amin for purportedly placing too few restrictions on the behavior of defense attorneys.

Asked by RFI why the tribunal allows defense attorney Khalil al-Dulaymi to refer to Hussein as "his excellency, the president," Amin said: "I believe that the way an attorney addresses his defendant is a private issue. It is not a legal issue related to the subject of the case. It does not, either, deny that Iraq now has an elected president, [Jalal] Talabani."

Walking A Tightrope

Amin's comments to RFI reveal the tightrope judges must walk between upholding the rules of the court and dealing with public – and perhaps political – pressure to the contrary. Speaking about public protests over the court's decision to permit defense attorney and former Qatari Justice Minister Najib al-Nu'aymi to challenge the legality of the court "in the name of the [Iraqi] people," Amin told RFI: "The [defense's] protest falls within the objections allowed to any defendant's attorney. The court must not prohibit the defendant or his attorney from presenting their objections to the case. The court must respond to them in accordance with the law and at the appropriate time."

Sources close to Amin say that government pressure for a quick trial is behind the judge's decision to resign. Amin "had complaints from the government that he was being too soft in dealing with Saddam. They want things to go faster," one source told Reuters, the news agency reported on 15 January. According to Western media reports, the court has not accepted Amin's resignation and has sent at least one tribunal judge to Al-Sulaymaniyah, Amin's hometown, to convince the chief judge to reconsider his resignation.

Government Pressure?

Trial observers fear the public airing of the government's pressure on the trial might undermine the legitimacy of the court. Indeed, Amin's resignation suggests the court is susceptible to outside pressure, be it political or public. At the same time, few Iraqis -- with the exception of Hussein supporters -- have any interest in letting the proceedings turn into a show trial. The revelation also reflects poorly on the outgoing al-Ja'fari administration, which has been widely criticized for its attempt to control other areas of the government, including the presidency.

While the revelation of political pressure can be seen as a blow to the reputation of the tribunal, it remains unclear what impact the resignation will have on the actual mechanics of the trial. Ja'far al-Musawi, proscutor-general of the Iraqi tribunal, told RFI on 16 January that there are 66 judges and prosecutors working for the Special Tribunal. "Any judge can replace Mr. Rizgar [Mohammed Amin]" al-Musawi said. "The court has 19 prosecutors and the rest are judges. All of them have been trained to deal with cases as those before the high tribunal. They have received training inside Iraq and abroad taking into consideration there are international criminal courts or similar bodies."

More Delays Likely

According to some media reports, Amin, while stepping down from the position of chief judge, intends to remain on the panel of five judges overseeing the trial. Other reports indicate that he wants to remain on the tribunal, but not necessarily to continue hearing the trial of Hussein and his codefendants. Should the need arise to appoint a new judge to the trial, proceedings could be further delayed.

Al-Musawi contends however, that the appointment of a new judge would not affect the trial. Asked by RFI who might replace Amin, al-Musawi said: "It is normal procedure for the president of the court to be the one. There are three panels and Mr. Rizgar [Mohammed Amin] is the chief judge of one. We have 15 criminal court judges as well as stand-by judges. It is quite normal for the president of the High Criminal Court, who is administratively and financially in charge of the court, to be the one who chooses Judge X for the first panel that is hearing the al-Dujayl case."

Regardless of whether Amin leaves the tribunal, it is clear the Iraqi government has been put on notice that attempts to interfere with the court will have consequences.

The Presiding Judge

The Presiding Judge

On November 11, 2005, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) spoke with Iraqi Special Tribunal presiding Judge Rizgar Muhammad Amin about the trial of ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and seven of his associates... (more)