Q&A: Judging Saddam Hussein Saddam Hussein is on trial for crimes alleged to have been committed during his rule in Iraq, which lasted from 1979 to 2003. This is the first of what could be as many as 12 trials involving Saddam.
NPR logo Q&A: Judging Saddam Hussein

Q&A: Judging Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein appears for a preliminary hearing at the Iraqi Special Tribunal in Baghdad on July 1, 2004. He will be back in court on Oct. 19, 2005 for the start of his trial. The guard's face is obscured because of security concerns. Corbis hide caption

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Saddam Hussein appears for a preliminary hearing at the Iraqi Special Tribunal in Baghdad on July 1, 2004. He will be back in court on Oct. 19, 2005 for the start of his trial. The guard's face is obscured because of security concerns.


Saddam Hussein is on trial for crimes alleged to have been committed during his rule in Iraq, which lasted from 1979 to 2003. The trial will not bear any clear resemblance to an American trial, or even to recent international war crimes tribunals.

What is he charged with?

Saddam Milestones

Initially, Saddam Hussein and seven other members of his former government are charged with crimes relating to a 1982 attack on the town of Dujail, north of Baghdad. It is alleged that the defendants were responsible for the deaths of 143 people, an act of reprisal for the attempted assassination of Saddam as his convoy drove through the mostly Shiite town on July 8, 1982.

Investigating Judge Raid Juhi told reporters in Baghdad before the trial that the charges would focus on the areas of "crimes of premeditated murder, forced expulsion of residents, torture and forced disappearances of individuals."

Iraqi leaders, and their American advisers, selected the low-profile Dujail incident as the tribunal's first case against Saddam because it was relatively easy to put together and, they believe, has a high probability of producing a conviction.

What is the significance of the trial?

The significance is twofold. First, this is a chance to see justice done, or revenge meted out, for the millions of Iraqis affected directly and indirectly by the terror tactics of Saddam's government.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, this is a chance for Iraq to prove to itself, and others, that it can function as a society under the rule of law, rather than a society under the rule of the gun.

Iraq has a reputation in the Arab world of requiring a strong hand in government to hold society together. A successful trial of Saddam and his former lieutenants would be a symbolic victory in efforts to prove otherwise.

Where is the trial being held, and under what kind of security?

The trial is taking place in the marble building that once served as the National Command Headquarters of Saddam's feared Baath Party. It is surrounded by 10-foot high blast walls and a cordon of troops. The building sits in Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone, where the Iraqi government and the U.S. embassy are located.

The identities of many of those involved in the trial, including prosecutors and witnesses, may be shielded to avoid reprisals from Saddam loyalists.

Two defense lawyers representing two of Saddam's co-defendants were killed after the trial began, one in October and one in November. After some negotiation, security for members of the defense was arranged.

Who is prosecuting him?

A team of prosecutors from the Iraqi Special Tribunal will argue the case against Saddam. The tribunal was set up by Americans, but is now run by the elected Iraqi government and staffed by Iraqis.

This trial, and ones to follow, are unusual in that they are being run by Iraqis, not outsiders. Most tribunals like this since World War II have been run by occupying powers or international organizations.

Prosecutors, and other tribunal staff members, were trained for the proceedings by members of the International Bar Association, among others.

Who is defending him?

Iraqi lawyer Khalil Dulaimi is Saddam's primary lawyer. All of the seven co-defendants have at least one lawyer representing them. At one point Saddam had 1,500 lawyers on his side. He fired them in August 2005 and is now relying on a much smaller legal team.

Dulaimi is working with London-based lawyer Abdel-Haq Alani. They tried to delay the start of the trial and have publicly challenged the court's competence. Although the start date of the trial was not moved, the defense did receive an adjournment right after proceedings began.

A number of international advisers are also associated with Saddam's defense team. Ramsey Clark, a U.S. attorney general in the 1960s, Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia, and Aysha Moammar Ghadafi, a law professor and the daughter of Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi, are all working with Saddam's primary lawyers.

Saddam's daughter Raghad Saddam Hussein — who has no legal training — is overseeing the defense team.

Who is judging him?

A five-judge panel will listen to the evidence and produce a verdict. There is no jury. The chief judge will ask questions.

Presiding Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin, a Kurd, is the only member of the panel who has been publicly identified.

U.S. officials say the Iraqi judges have received special training from American, British and Australian experts. They may also receive international assistance during the proceedings.

How long is the trial expected to last?

The length of the trial is not set. Immediately after the trial began, the court agreed to recess until Nov. 28. Testimony was read into the record when court reconvened, and then another break was ordered until Dec. 5.

There is an extensive appeal process available to Saddam and the other defendants if they are convicted.

What access does the news media have to the trial?

Reporters are able to watch the proceedings in the courtroom, and some photography is allowed. Courtroom proceedings have been broadcast on TV.

Saddam's lawyers have been talking to the press in the run-up to the trial, as have American officials supporting the current Iraqi government.

Do everyday Iraqis show any interest in the trial?

The trial is of significant interest to two groups of Iraqis. Iraqis who have been touched by the former government's heavy hand are eagerly looking for justice.

Many in the Sunni Arab minority, the group Saddam came from and favored, are fearful that this trial will be the first act of revenge by the Kurds and Shiite majority against their former oppressors.

What happens if he's convicted?

He could face the death penalty, or imprisonment. There is an extensive appeals process. Any execution would take place within 30 days of the final appeal being exhausted.

If he's not convicted?

He would likely be tried on other charges.

Will there be other Saddam trials after this?

Regardless of the verdict, the trial is expected to be the first of about a dozen involving crimes allegedly committed by Saddam and others in the regime during their 23-year rule.

These include the 1988 gassing of up to 5,000 Kurds in the town of Halabja and the bloody 1991 suppression of a Shiite uprising in the south after a U.S.-led coalition drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

The Other Defendants

There are seven other defendants on trial with Saddam Hussein. They are:

  • Barazan Ibrahim: Saddam's half brother and Iraq's intelligence chief at time of killings in the town of Dujail, Iraq
  • Taha Yassin Ramadan: Iraqi vice president 1991-2003
  • Awad Hamed al-Bandar: Head of Iraq's Revolutionary Court, which issued death sentences against 143 Dujail residents
  • Abdullah Kazim Ruwayyid: A Baath Party official in Dujail region believed responsible for the Dujail arrests
  • Ali Dayim Ali: Baath official in Dujail region
  • Mohammed Azawi Ali: Baath official in Dujail region
  • Mizhar Abdullah Ruwayyid: Baath official in Dujail and son of fellow defendant Abdullah Kazim Ruwayyid