Legitimacy of Iraq's Special Tribunal

The trial of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein resumed Monday in a specially-built courtroom in the Green Zone. As the proceedings got under way, Saddam referred to police guards at the trial as "conquerors and occupiers." Steve Inskeep talks with law professor Michael Scharf about the legitimacy of the trial.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Today Saddam Hussein returned to an Iraqi courtroom for the latest, brief installment of his trial. The former Iraqi president and seven co-defendants are charged with crimes against humanity in the 1982 killings of more than 140 Shiite Muslims, in Dujail; that's a village north of Baghdad. The accused have all pleaded not guilty to the charges. Now in court today, Saddam complained that he had to walk up four flights of stairs because of a broken elevator, and he referred to police guards at the trial as conquerors and occupiers.

We're going to turn now to Michael Scharf.

Professor MICHAEL SCHARF (Case Western University): Hi, Steve. Good to talk to you again.

INSKEEP: You know, last time you spoke with us right at the beginning of this trial, Saddam's lawyers were preparing to challenge the legitimacy of the whole proceeding. Our correspondent in Baghdad, Peter Kenyon, says that Saddam appears today to have accepted the authority of the Iraqi judges. What does that mean?

Prof. SCHARF: Well, so much has changed. In fact, during the very first day of the trial, we saw a real change in Saddam's demeanor. At first, he was challenging the judge's authority, and by the end of the day, he was standing up and pleading that he was not guilty. It sounds like the lawyers for Saddam Hussein are going to try to win this case in the court of law, not just in the court of public opinion, and that they're going to play by the rules. They will try to challenge the legitimacy of the proceedings, but they will do so by the court's playbook.

INSKEEP: You mentioned Saddam's lawyers. I supposed we should say surviving lawyers, since they're members of the legal teams of Saddam's co-defendants who have actually been targeted and killed in recent days.

Prof. SCHARF: Well, it was a real problem because during the last 40 days, the defense was supposed to be preparing all of its challenges and the motions that it would be making today. And instead they went on a boycott that wasn't solved until earlier this week. They went on a boycott because they said that they wouldn't accept American or Iraqi security and a compromise was worked out so that they have their own personal security guards, much like rock stars would have their own entourage, and those security guards have been authorized by the US and Iraqi government to carry weapons.

INSKEEP: You mentioned that there was a dispute over who should provide security. The reason here, of course, is that some of these lawyers have been targeted, even killed.

Prof. SCHARF: Right. And there's also--the lawyers that I've talked to, some of them--in fact, I played an interesting role as a back channel a couple of weeks ago during the boycott to try to get information to the White House about what the defense counsel wanted. And Curtis Doebbler, one of the lawyers, told me that they wanted three things. First, they wanted an independent investigation. That has now been given. Secondly, they wanted to have Curtis Doebbler and Ramsey Clark and some of the high-powered superstar foreign lawyers given visas so that they could come and attend the trial. That's now happened, and Ramsey Clark has shown up in Baghdad. And, thirdly, they wanted their own security. They just didn't trust the Iraqi government to keep them safe, and now that has been given as well.

INSKEEP: Should they have trusted the Iraqi government? Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister, has even been saying over the weekend that he thinks that there is violence comparable to Saddam's time in Iraq right now.

Prof. SCHARF: Well, Iraq is definitely a mess. It's a dangerous place in Baghdad, even in the Green Zone, and the government is full of all sorts of factions that have their own agendas. The main agenda of most of the government seems to be that they want this trial to succeed, but there are those inside the government that would like to derail the trial, and so we just don't know who actually was responsible for the killings. It could have been people outside, part of the insurgency. It could have been Shiites who were retaliating. Or it could even have been people in the government, and that's why an independent investigation is so important at this time.

INSKEEP: And just very briefly, Mr. Scharf, having been involved in training the Iraqi judges for these tribunals, do you think that Iraqis believe they are putting forth a model for future cases here?

Prof. SCHARF: Well, that's the most important thing here. There's a model, first of all, with respect to the other very important trials of the Iraqi leaders for things like the Anfal campaign and the alleged genocide against the southern Iraqi Shiites. Whatever happens in this trial is going to pave the way for those subsequent trials. But more importantly I think, the entire court system of Iraq is looking at this trial as a model for how it will be employing the new international human rights standards that it has adopted.

INSKEEP: Michael Scharf is a professor of law and director of the International Law Center at Case Western University School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio.

Thanks very much.

Prof. SCHARF: Good to talk to you, Steve.

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