Verdict May Come Soon in Saddam Trial

A verdict is expected this weekend in the first Saddam Hussein trial. "Guilty" is the widespread anticipation, but a lengthy appeals process is likely to ensue.

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In Iraq, judges in the first trial of Saddam Hussein are expected to deliver their verdict this weekend. The U.S. had hoped the trial would be a step toward healing the wounds from decades of authoritarian rule.

But as NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports from Baghdad, the proceedings and the drama surrounding them have contributed to an increasing divide between Iraq's Muslim communities.

JAMIE TARABAY: Authorities are bracing for a backlash from either the Sunni or Shiite communities, depending on the outcome of this case - the alleged massacre of 148 Shiite villagers, after an attempt to assassinate Saddam in 1982. There'll be outrage from the Sunnis if Saddam is convicted and given a death sentence. And outrage from the Shiites if he's not.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki - a Shiite - has already said he expects Saddam to be executed. After one postponement, prosecutor Jaafar al-Mussawi is optimistic the verdict will be ready by Sunday. And he hopes the penalty for Saddam and three of the seven other former Baathist officials on trial will be death.

Mr. JAAFAR AL-MUSSAWI (Prosecutor): (Through translator) This is what we as the public prosecutors have demanded according to the available evidence, which we totally believe is enough to get a conviction.

TARABAY: Whether it will be enough or not is one of the reasons the five trial judges delayed their verdict. The judgment will have to stand up to international scrutiny as well. The non-governmental rights group Human Rights Watch, claims the trial has fallen far short of producing indisputable factual evidence and it and other rights groups will be watching closely to see if the final judgment links the evidence to the specific charges against Saddam and his associates.

Officials here say some of the defendants may even be acquitted. Kevin Dooley works for the Regime Crimes Liaison Office in the U.S. Embassy here, which has advised the court. He says the prosecution didn't have the same preponderance of evidence to bring to bear against each defendant.

Mr. KEVIN DOOLEY (Regime Crimes Liaison Office, U.S. Embassy): I'll put it to you this way, it would not shock me if there was a, you know, one or more acquittals in the case.

Mr. SADDAM HUSSEIN (Former Iraqi Dictator): (Speaking foreign language)

TARABAY: Seeing and hearing Saddam (unintelligible) has amazed and transfixed the Iraqi people. Saddam used the trial to make political speeches and was often forcibly removed from the courtroom for his outbursts. The trial's been fraught with hunger strikes by the defendants, walk outs by the defense team, accusations of perjury by some witnesses, and the killing of lawyers on both sides.

(Soundbite of telephone recording)

TARABAY: In this recording of a telephone conversation played in the courtroom, Saddam's aide, Taha Yassin Ramadan, tells him of the widespread destruction of farmland and orchards in and around the Shiite village of Dejail, punishment for the village after the attempt on Saddam's life in 1982. thousands of villagers were rounded up, moen, women and children, and taken to detention camps where many suffered from torture and malnutrition.

The prosecution says 148 villagers died in Saddam's prisons. Once a verdict is issued, there's an automatic appeal. Nine new judges will oversee that process. There's no time limit on their deliberations. Again, Kevin Dooley.

Mr. DOOLEY: You know, it can be decided in two weeks or one month or six months.

TARBAY: But no matter how long it takes, once the final judgment is issued, the sentence must be carried out within 30 days of its announcement. Currently, Saddam is on trial in another case regarding the deaths of tens of thousands of Kurds, but that won't stop a sentence from the first trial from being carried.

Drinking tea on a slow day in his clothing store, Baghdad resident Ahmed Hussein blames Saddam for the current turmoil. He says he was impressed by the trial at first, but now he's bored and he just wants the whole thing to be over.

Mr. AHMED HUSSEIN: (Through translator) Whenever there's a court session, the next day there are explosions across Baghdad. They should just convict him and get rid of him.

TARABAY: Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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