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Saddam Hussein Sentenced to Death, Legal Experts Question Court Proceedings

StoryNovember 06, 2006
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An Iraqi court sentenced Saddam Hussein to death by hanging for committing crimes against humanity. The decision was announced on Sunday, just two days before the U.S. mid-term elections. We speak with Scott Horton, the Chairman of the International Law Committee and a member of the Iraqi Bar Association. [includes rush transcript]

On Sunday, an Iraqi special tribunal convicted Saddam Hussein of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to death by hanging. The deposed Iraqi ruler was convicted of the killing of 148 Shi’ite villagers in the town of Dujail in 1982. Seven co-defendants were also convicted and two of them, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, Saddam’s half-brother and head of Iraq’s domestic intelligence agency and Awad al-Bandar, president of the revolutionary court, also received death sentences. Celebrations in Shi’ite strongholds broke out across the country after the verdict was issued. Here is a resident of Dujail speaking on Sunday about the verdict.

  • Ahmed Ajail, resident of Dujail.

Saddam supporters also marched in support of the ousted leader in the Sunni strongholds of Samarra, Hawija, Kirkuk and Tikrit. The verdict came nearly three years after Saddam Hussein was captured in his underground hideaway by American troops. His trial began more than a year ago and was marked by delays, violence and outbursts from Hussein condemning the proceedings. During the course of the trial, three defense lawyers were killed and the original chief judge resigned in protest over government interference. When the verdict was read yesterday, Saddam shouted "You don’t decide. You are servants of the occupiers and their followers. You are puppets." Many international legal and human rights experts have questioned the legitimacy of the court. Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying, "Unfortunately, we believe the serious shortcomings in the fairness of the proceedings undermined the legitimacy and credibility of the trial." But President Bush hailed the verdict as a milestone.

  • President Bush, speaking November 5th, 2006.

We discuss the trial and verdict of Saddam Hussein as well as take a look at some other legal cases in Iraq with attorney Scott Horton.

  • Scott Horton, Chairman of the International Law Committee at the New York Bar Association. Member of the Iraqi Bar Association.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a resident of Dujail speaking Sunday about the verdict.

AHMED AJAIL: [translated] We are happy for the families of the victims and mothers who have children and sons who have been killed. This is the least that Saddam deserved. He should have been hanged ten times, and not only once.

AMY GOODMAN: Saddam supporters also marched in support of the ousted leader in the Sunni strongholds of Samarra, Hawija, Kirkuk and Tikrit. The verdict came nearly three years after Saddam Hussein was captured in his underground hideaway by U.S. troops. His trial began more than a year ago and was marked by delays, violence, outbursts from Saddam Hussein condemning the proceedings. During the course of the trial, three defense lawyers were killed, and the original chief judge resigned in protest over government interference. When the verdict was read Sunday, Saddam shouted, "You don’t decide! You are servants of the occupiers and their followers! You are puppets!" Many international legal and human rights experts have questioned the legitimacy of the court. Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying, quote, "Unfortunately, we believe the serious shortcomings in the fairness of the proceedings undermined the legitimacy and credibility of the trial." But President Bush hailed the verdict as a "milestone."

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Today, Saddam Hussein was convicted and sentenced to death by the Iraqi High Tribunal for the massacres committed by his regime in the town of Dujail. Saddam Hussein’s trial is a milestone in the Iraqi people’s efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law. It’s a major achievement for Iraq’s young democracy and its constitutional government.

During Saddam Hussein’s trial, the court received evidence from 130 witnesses. The man who once struck fear in the hearts of Iraqis had to listen to free Iraqis recount the acts of torture and murder that he ordered against their families and against them. Today, the victims of this regime have received a measure of the justice which many thought would never come.

Saddam Hussein will have an automatic right to appeal his sentence. He will continue to receive the due process and legal rights that he denied to the Iraqi people. Iraq has a lot of work ahead as it builds its society that delivers equal justice and protects all its citizens. Yet history will record today’s judgment as an important achievement on the path to a free and just and unified society.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush on Sunday. Scott Horton joins us now, Chair of the International Law Committee at the New York Bar Association, also a member of the Iraqi Bar Association. Welcome to Democracy Now!

SCOTT HORTON: Good to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to the verdict?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I think the evidence against Saddam Hussein is clear and impressive and, in fact, I think we have to salute Human Rights Watch, which did a tremendous job over many years of documenting the violations, including the Dujail incident. So I think people are relieved to see that sentence.

But when we come to the fairness and legitimacy of the proceedings, there, there are very, very deep concerns, and I think it’s all wrapped around the timing of the announcement of the verdict, which was very carefully planned to be the last print media day, so we would have headlines above the fold in American newspapers on the day before Americans go to vote in very, very important mid-term elections.

AMY GOODMAN: Who decides this?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I think the Americans decided that. And in fact, I can tell you from my own experiences dealing with Iraqi courts, the calendar of the court was fixed directly by the Americans. One Iraqi judge I discussed this with told me that, "Look, we are autonomous and independent in many regards, and the calendar is not one of them. The calendar is fixed by when the Americans want us to convene the court and when they produce the witnesses so that we can interrogate them and conduct hearings."

And this is particularly true for the so-called Special Tribunal. We need to note that this was constructed, arranged from the beginning with American taxpayer money, $138 million put in to funding it; a large professional staff; the regime crime unit attached to the U.S. embassy orchestrating every aspect of this case, compiling claims, putting them together, even making the physical plan and layout for the courtroom.

AMY GOODMAN: Where else was the U.S. involved in the shaping of this trial?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I think the decision to bring the charges that were brought, focusing on the Dujail incident first, putting off ’til later the far more troubling genocide aspects. That was another area where there was clearly American slight of hand involved.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush makes the point of saying that Saddam Hussein can appeal this. What does that mean?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, that’s correct. There is an automatic appeal that kicks in. This is a first time, of course, for this entire proceeding. We don’t know exactly the amount of time that will be involved. I think most people who’ve looked at it consider that this is going to be a matter of a couple of months, perhaps three months at outside. And then the execution sentence itself has to be confirmed by the government. But I’d also say, no one in Iraq is surprised by the decision. Most people consider that it was foreordained from the beginning.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve called this the November surprise of President Bush?

SCOTT HORTON: That’s correct. I mean, I think the — you know, it was vitally important to the United States and to Iraq for this proceeding to be legitimate, to be seen by the Iraqi people as legitimate. It was necessary as a sort of exorcism of the ghost of Saddam Hussein and his past tyranny. And I think the brazen political manipulation of this trial by the Bush administration has dramatically undercut that. And this is something that’s fully understood by everyone in Iraq. In fact, if you go and you look at River Bend, the very prominent Iraqi blogger, she’s writing about it this morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Horton, I wanted to go back to another story, one that we have covered that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention: Mohammad Munaf. He is the Iraqi American who has just been sentenced to death also. Can you talk about his case?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I was astounded by that, when I first heard a report about it. And I picked up the phone and I spoke with two — I knew, actually, the two Iraqi attorneys who were involved, representing him in that case. The Brennan Center here in New York was also involved. So I spoke with the defense counsel. I also spoke with a bailiff at the court about it, to find out what had happened in this proceeding. And what they all described — in fact, completely they all had exactly the same account of what happened — was shocking.

They say that he was brought into the courtroom, Mr. Munaf, by two American officers — one they described as, quote, "the general;" the other they described as a man named Lieutenant Pirone. He was brought before the court. The court had announced, prior to session, that reviewing the evidence of the case, he had concluded that he would dismiss the charges, that there were no substantial charges, and that at this hearing, that would be a conclusion to the affair, there would be a dismissal.

AMY GOODMAN: And this was the case of an Iraqi American who had accompanied three Romanian journalists —

SCOTT HORTON: Who were kidnapped.

AMY GOODMAN: — who were all kidnapped, including him.

SCOTT HORTON: That’s correct. And then, the account is that this American lieutenant stood up, began arguing very loudly with the judge, saying it was unacceptable that this man be dismissed, that he had to be convicted, and moreover that he had to receive the death sentence. And the American whipped out a piece of paper saying he was there speaking on behalf of the government of Romania and the government of Romania demanded the death sentence.

Afterwards, there was a private discussion, I’m told, between the Americans and the judge. The judge emerged from this ashen-faced, looking very upset, and then proceeded immediately to convict the man and sentence him to death.

And subsequently, the government of Romania reacted, saying they knew nothing about this proceeding and they certainly did not authorize an American officer to stand up in the court and demand the death sentence. In fact, the government of Romania does not endorse the death sentence. So there’s something very strange going on about this case.

And the application was made to the district court in Washington, D.C., to get a freezing order, an injunction against this American, who is being held by the United States, by the way, in Iraq, being held by U.S. forces in Iraq, to preclude his being turned over to the Iraqi authorities. That was denied by the district court. It was denied by the court of appeals, on the basis, remember, of the Military Commissions Act, which essentially has gutted the writ of habeas corpus. So we have an American citizen who may be, in fact, executed in Iraq at the insistence of the American military without any ability of the U.S. courts to intervene and provide justice in the case — without a trial, I have to stress that.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think the U.S. military wants Munaf dead?

SCOTT HORTON: I have no idea.

AMY GOODMAN: You have represented others. You’re a member of the Iraqi Bar Association.

SCOTT HORTON: Yes, I’m a foreign and international law expert accredited to the Iraqi Bar Association.

AMY GOODMAN: There is also an AP reporter who is being held in jail, Bilal Hussein, the Associated Press reporter. What is his story now?

SCOTT HORTON: He is now in his seven month of detention.

AMY GOODMAN: He’s a photographer?

SCOTT HORTON: He won the Pulitzer Prize, in fact, two years ago for his work covering the siege and military operations in Fallujah. He is a photojournalist. He’s in his seventh month. No charges have been brought against him. The U.S. forces hold him, and they say that they’re under no obligation to bring any charges against him of any kind, and they assert that they have the right to hold him indefinitely without charges. This is something out of Kafka.

AMY GOODMAN: The presidents of the Associated Press Managing Editors, APME, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, ASNE, the Associated Press Photo Managers, have sent a joint letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, asking for the release of Bilal Hussein, saying, "The members of our three organizations stand united in our outrage at the imprisonment of our colleague." On what grounds are they holding him, and is this similar to another case that you have represented in Iraq?

SCOTT HORTON: Absolutely, it is. The grounds articulated are that he presents an imperative threat to the security of U.S. forces in Iraq, and the imperative threat he presents is the fact that he takes pictures of events in Iraq for the Associated Press. And the gravamen of the complaints they’ve raised are about Associated Press distributed photographs that he has taken.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the case that you represented, similar to this, where they were going after a reporter, ultimately killed a reporter?

SCOTT HORTON: He was shot.

AMY GOODMAN: Shot a reporter, who simply shows up at the scene. It’s very hard for U.S. journalists to do this. It mainly falls to Iraqi journalists.

SCOTT HORTON: That’s exactly right. It was Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, who was a CBS photojournalist, who was dispatched to cover an incident in Mosul, was shot in the aftermath of the incident by a U.S. sharpshooter, was held by U.S. forces for one year. Finally, just in the last few days of that period, the U.S. brought charges against him. It went before an Iraqi judge, an Iraqi trial. I participated in his defense in the trial. The trial resulted in a complete acquittal, in fact with the trial judge saying, "This is not a case in which we had to weigh the evidence. There was no evidence against this man." So his incarceration was completely improper. He was at the scene of that incident on the instructions of his employer, based on a tip —


SCOTT HORTON: CBS. Based on the tip received from two other wire agencies about what was going on there. And all that was confirmed and demonstrated to the military. It didn’t make any difference.

AMY GOODMAN: Wasn’t he also, it just so happens in that case — it was a Stryker vehicle, and Congress was weighing whether to fund the company?

SCOTT HORTON: That very week, in fact. And his shooting and the seizure of his materials prevented film footage of that Stryker, which was destroyed, being disseminated on CBS News. It would have been on the evening news that night.

AMY GOODMAN: And the point was, they said it was invulnerable, but that it had been blown up.

SCOTT HORTON: Absolutely correct.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Scott Horton, Chair of the International Law Committee at the New York Bar Association. I wanted to ask you about this latest headline in the Washington Post, reporting the Bush administration has told a federal judge that prisoners once held in secret CIA jails should never be able to reveal to their civilian attorneys details of how they were interrogated.

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I think one of the hallmarks of tyrannical government is using security classifications to obscure their criminal conduct. It’s well worth thinking about that in the context of this case. What’s going on is an effort to impede the effective legal representation of defendants in criminal proceedings through the wielding of security classifications. These people are told that "what we did to you is classified top secret. Therefore, you may not talk about it."

Of course, what was done to them was a criminal act. The Supreme Court of the United States concluded in Hamdan that Common Article 3 and the standards on treatment of detainees apply to these detainees. The techniques that were used do not conform to Common Article 3. Therefore, they are grave breaches. Therefore, they are crimes under United States law and under international law. So, that is why an effort it being made to cloak that. And when the Department of Justice of the United States files papers with a federal court attempting to obscure criminal conduct, something has sunk very low in this process.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, going back to the verdict for Saddam Hussein — death — the five-judge court found Saddam Hussein guilty of executing 148 Shia men and boys from the town of Dujail in 1982. It was a year later that Donald Rumsfeld, as an envoy for Reagan and Bush administration, went to Iraq, shook hands with Saddam Hussein to normalize relations.

SCOTT HORTON: That’s correct. And Donald Rumsfeld is reported to have assured him, "Don’t worry about all the talk coming from the United States about your human rights violations. We’re going to support you, and we’re going to offer you backup in your conflict with Iran."

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Horton, I want to thank you for being with us. Thank you, Chair of the International Law Committee at the New York Bar Association, member of the Iraqi Bar Association.

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