SULAYMANIA, Iraq – The trial of former dictator Saddam Hussein opens today in Baghdad, giving Iraqis a long-awaited opportunity to see justice dispensed to a man they accuse of gassing, torturing and executing hundreds of thousands of people during his 25-year rule.
Although many Iraqis believe a guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion, judicial officials say tons of documentary evidence will be carefully considered as the case progresses over the coming months, and that prosecutors must prove their charges that he personally ordered mass killings.
But international legal analysts and human rights observers say the judiciary’s most difficult challenge will be to demonstrate that it can carry out a fair trial against a man whose mere name is synonymous worldwide with brutality and bloodshed.
The trial will open with charges that he and seven former top aides ordered the killings of 140 Shiite Muslim men and boys in the town of Dujail, 35 miles north of Baghdad, after an assassination attempt on the Iraqi leader in 1982. Saddam’s lead lawyer said he would seek an immediate three-month adjournment to give the defense more time to prepare.
Even his fiercest Iraqi critics acknowledge it will be difficult to give Saddam a fair trial. But many question whether he even deserves one or whether any punishment, including execution, could possibly match the crimes they believe he committed.
“I want him to be handed over to the people. Set him free on the streets and let him walk through Sulaymania,” said Ahmad Raza, a lawyer here in Kurdish northern Iraq, whose 16-year-old brother was arrested by government agents in 1985 and accused of supporting Kurdish insurgents.
The boy was executed two years later, and the family had to pay the equivalent of $200 to get his body returned.
“The people would give him a fair trial,” Raza said. “Let them pick apart his flesh, one piece at a time.”
Others said they opposed capital punishment under any circumstances.
“Let him spend his life in prison,” said Redwar Azadi, a Kurdish journalist and opponent of the death penalty. He sat in a teashop beneath a photo of an infant and her mother killed during a 1988 gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja.
“They could make a videotape of his two sons when they were killed by the Americans,” during a 2003 battle, he added. “They could make him watch it every day, over and over again, just so he could feel the pain we feel.”
Saddam, who has been in solitary confinement since late 2003, will appear in a Baghdad courtroom, inside the former headquarters of his Baath Arab Socialist Party, under heavy security. The proceeding is the first of several trials Saddam faces.
The names of judges and prosecutors have been kept secret to guard against reprisal attacks. Bulletproof glass will line the areas of the courtroom reserved for observers. Witnesses will be allowed to testify behind a curtain to protect their identities. The defendants, accompanied by one attorney each, will stand in dead-bolted, cage-like stalls.
The trial, which is expected to televised worldwide, comes nearly two years after U.S.-led forces dragged Saddam from an underground hide-out, and the chief U.S. official in Iraq declared, “The tyrant is a prisoner.”
“The trial of Saddam Hussein before the Iraqi Higher Criminal Court is set to become one of the most significant criminal trials in history,” said an analysis published Tuesday by the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London. “The circumstances of his fall from power and the uncertainty surrounding the commencement of his trial mean that the event is already deeply colored by political debate.”
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch stated in a report last week that it has “grave concerns” about the Iraqi court’s ability to guarantee a fair trial.
Iraqis say the trial will show insurgent groups loyal to Saddam that their campaign of guerrilla attacks and bombings will not affect their demand for justice.
The laws under which Saddam will be tried are a mixture of judicial procedures enacted during his own rule and some enacted when the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA, governed Iraq.
Saddam’s lead attorney, Khalil al-Dulaimi, has said he plans to challenge the court’s authority to hear the case and will seek a postponement of proceedings because the defense had inadequate time to prepare for cross-examination of witnesses and study the 800 pages of documented evidence to be submitted by the prosecution.