Sunday, January 15, 2006

Saddam judge threatens to quit at govt pressure

Saddam judge threatens to quit at govt pressure

By Mariam Karouny

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The chief judge in the trial of Saddam Hussein has tendered his resignation in protest at political interference, casting fresh doubt on the U.S.-backed Iraqi government's ability to ensure a fair trial.

A source close to Kurdish judge Rizgar Amin told Reuters on Saturday that tribunal officials were trying to talk him out of his decision but he was reluctant to stay on because Shi'ite leaders had criticized him for being "soft" on Saddam in court.

"He tendered his resignation to the court a few days ago but the court rejected it. Now talks are under way to convince him to go back on his decision," the source said. "He's under a lot of pressure; the whole court is under political pressure."

"He had complaints from the government that he was being too soft in dealing with Saddam Hussein and his co-defendants. They (government leaders) want things to go faster."

Technically the departure of the presiding magistrate on the five-judge panel can be overcome by appointing a substitute; but Amin's complaints about government interference may do lasting damage to the credibility of the Iraqi High Tribunal.

The killing of two defense lawyers had already highlighted problems with the process amid a virtual civil war between Saddam's fellow minority Sunni Arabs and the U.S.-sponsored government, run by Shi'ite Muslims and ethnic Kurds intent on quickly hanging a man they say massacred their peoples.

International human rights lawyers have urged U.S. officials and the new Iraqi government to send Saddam and his aides to an international court abroad while the defense has branded the proceedings "victor's justice" imposed under U.S. occupation.

"The defense team has long warned about the dangers of political pressure that has undermined the court's independence and integrity," Saddam's chief attorney, Khalil Dulaimi, said.

"We expect the political pressures to mount on the court after ... the farce it has turned out to be," he told Reuters.

Miranda Sissons, who has observed the trial for the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice, said that if Amin quit: "Public faith in the tribunal will have disappeared ... It will be a signal to the Iraqi public that political pressure on the tribunal has had an effect."


The source close to Amin said: "There's too much pressure ... it is a question of integrity ... I am not sure if he will go back on his decision. I don't think it's possible."

Amin, 48, told Reuters in November his family was worried about him and he had taken on two bodyguards after pressure from friends. But he stressed: "A judge should never be afraid."

Spokesmen for the High Tribunal were not available for comment on a weekend following the Eid al-Adha holiday.

In the first trial, which has sat for seven days since October 19 and is due to resume on January 24, Saddam and seven others are charged with crimes against humanity in the deaths of over 140 Shi'ite men after an assassination attempt on Saddam in 1982.

After hearings last month, some observers criticized Amin for allowing Saddam to speak at length, making allegations, including of maltreatment at American hands.

The judge, whose dry wit and courteous manner have been features of the proceedings so far, rejected the criticism and insisted the defense should have a fair hearing.


Al Qaeda claimed Friday's shooting down of a U.S. helicopter that killed the two crew. U.S. commanders have warned of an increase in violence when election results come out next week.

International experts investigating Sunni complaints of fraud in the December 15 vote will deliver preliminary findings on Sunday or Monday, the head of the team said. An election official said he hoped for final election results within a week.

An almost final tally of parliamentary seats, obtained by Reuters, confirmed Sunni parties would have about a fifth of the seats, while the dominant Shi'ite Islamist Alliance would fall only a few seats short of retaining its slim absolute majority.

A British journalist recounted a brush with Iraq's feared kidnap gangs, writing in several newspapers how U.S. troops stumbled across him five days after he was seized in Baghdad on December 26 and forced to make a video calling on the British government to pull its troops out of Iraq.

While Phil Sands, 28, was counting his blessings, another freelance journalist, American Jill Carroll, was still missing a week after she was snatched by gunmen in the Iraqi capital.

(Additional reporting by Twana Osman in Sulaimaniya, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Firouz Sedarat in Dubai and Alastair Macdonald, Mussab Al-Khairalla and Ross Colvin in Baghdad)