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Nation & World

Saddam Fails to Show at Trial, Hearings in Recess

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

In Baghdad, the trial of Saddam Hussein and seven co-defendants resumed today with one notable absence: Saddam Hussein himself. The proceedings have been interrupted repeatedly by Saddam. He's complaining about jail conditions, complaining about his cell and saying he hasn't had a change of clothes in days. At the end of Tuesday's proceedings, Hussein declared he would not return to what he called a court without justice. Here's more of what he had to say.

Former President SADDAM HUSSEIN (Iraq): (Through Translator) Have you asked the defendants, `Have you been tortured?' Even the president. `Have you been hit?' We are in a small cage. We are not allowed to go out and take a stroll. That is the democracy of America.

BRAND: The trial has been adjourned for two weeks. Joining me now is New York University law Professor Noah Feldman.

And welcome to the show.

Professor NOAH FELDMAN (New York University): Thank you for having me.

BRAND: First off, how do you think the trial is going so far?

Prof. FELDMAN: Disastrously. Saddam has done an extremely effective job of harassing witnesses, of questioning the legitimacy of the court, of making the court look as though it's not terribly well-organized and, in fact, as though it were a kind of metaphor for the situation in Iraq generally, American backing and a relatively ineffective government.

BRAND: So do you think now with this four days of seeing this unfold, do you think that it was a mistake to have this trial in Iraq and to have it televised?

Prof. FELDMAN: It's too soon to say it was definitively a mistake because there is still some significant impact for the ordinary, non-Sunni Iraqi in hearing the testimony, when it was possible to hear it, of witnesses who firsthand spoke of the way they had been victimized, the way they had seen people killed, the way they had been tortured by Saddam and his regime. And there is a positive gain to be had from that.

However, so far, the preparation seems to have been sorely lacking. And that means that one really has reason to believe that it would've been a good idea to wait a little bit longer before getting started with the trial.

BRAND: Preparation on the part of everyone?

Prof. FELDMAN: Well, not on the part of Saddam--he seems to be relatively well-prepared--but on the part of those who are organizing the court and setting the rules of procedure for the court in action. I think one of the key problems has been that although Iraqi law allows for cross-examination of the witnesses, here in fact Saddam and his co-defendants have been interrupting the witnesses in the middle of their testimony and at the same time have been bringing in irrelevant issues, not just asking about the testimony, but actually challenging the legitimacy of the court itself. And that results in part from a very strange error committed by the US government in planning the procedures.

BRAND: Well, what about having a non-Iraqi judge, someone, let's say, from the International Criminal Tribunal?

Prof. FELDMAN: Perhaps it would've been harder for him if we were sitting in The Hague in an international tribunal to challenge the legitimacy of the court. He wouldn't have been able to say this is just an American operation with the same degree of certainty. So perhaps under those circumstances, having an international judge would have made it a little bit harder for Saddam to make these arguments convincingly. I'm pretty sure he would've made them, however, in any case.

BRAND: Given other trials such as the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslavian trial, the Rwandan genocide trials, are there better ways to proceed with this kind of trial?

Prof. FELDMAN: There certainly are. The court--and in fact this could be happening right in Baghdad--the court could really crack down on interruptions. They could crack down on irrelevant statements by Saddam. They could make sure that a basic modicum of orderliness is followed in the courtroom. And that's what would happen in most ordinary trials if a defendant jumped up and demanded to make statements; he would be ruled out of order. The problem, of course, is if the defendant is willing to keep on trying to turn the trial into a show, then at some point the judge will be faced with the choice of either muzzling the defendant, quite literally, or removing him from the courtroom. That, of course, is what happened to Saddam today. He voluntarily removed himself from the courtroom, probably because he realized he was running out of shenanigans. And I think he thought he would experiment with not being in the court and see whether that delegitimized the trial.

BRAND: Well, I wonder how this is going to affect the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Prof. FELDMAN: Ordinary Sunnis, I think, have probably been to some degree galvanized by Saddam standing up to the government and saying, `This is a trial of Shia and Kurds backed by the US against me, Saddam, and I speak for you, Sunnis.' On the other hand, the main purpose of starting it now was to galvanize the Shia and the Kurds. Those who started the trial at this time were those in the government, primarily Shia and Kurds themselves, who wanted to show their voters that they're going to bring Saddam to justice. And they truly believe that by starting a trial now, it would help them in the upcoming elections, and they've made their point now. I think they probably realized that more days of this trial would actually make things worse for their position and not better. They need to regroup and consider why it is that they're allowing the trial to be this point of lack of control, which is what the courtroom really appears to be.

BRAND: NYU law Professor Noah Feldman, thank you for joining us.

Prof. FELDMAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.