Saddam Hussein's trial postponed until Sunday

Published: Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
BAGHDAD, Iraq - The resumption of Saddam Hussein's trial was abruptly canceled Tuesday and postponed for five days in the latest turmoil to plague the court, as some on the panel hearing the case resisted a last-minute shake-up that brought in a new chief judge.
Saddam's lawyers said the confusion showed the court could not give the ousted Iraqi leader a fair trial and was under too much political pressure.
"There's too much violence in the country, there's too much division and too much pressure on the court," former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who is on Saddam's defense team, told CNN. "The project ought to be abandoned. It was a creature of the United States in the first place."
The trial, meant to be a landmark in postwar Iraq's political progress, has been marred by delays, courtroom outbursts by Saddam and the assassinations of two defense attorneys. A third defense lawyer fled the country after the trial began.
The five-member panel hearing the case was thrown into confusion after the trial's last session, on Dec. 22. Chief judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin resigned, complaining of criticism from politicians that he was not reining in Saddam.
A panel member named to replace him was suddenly removed, and a new chief judge, Rouf Abdel-Rahman, was brought in instead.
After hours of waiting for the start of Tuesday's court session, a court official told journalists that the court had decided to postpone the hearing until Sunday.
Spokesman Raid Juhi blamed the delay on witnesses who failed to appear because they were performing the hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, which ended more than a week ago.
Two judges told The Associated Press that the real reason was a split among the judges over the naming of Abdel-Rahman.
One said arguments between Abdel-Rahman's supporters and detractors continued as the postponement was announced.
The two judges were members of the Special Tribunal trying the ousted Iraqi leader, which employs judges beside those hearing the case. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because court rules bar most judges from being named.
Abdel-Rahman, a Kurd, was born in Halabja, the town where Saddam's forces allegedly launched a poison gas attack in 1988 that killed 5,000 Kurds. Some of his relatives were among the dead, according to his family.
Saddam is expected to eventually go on trial for the Halabja deaths.
"The postponement shows that there is a legal crisis inside the tribunal and the trial is not going in a normal course," Khamis al-Obeidi, a member of Saddam's defense team, said.
Clark said political pressures on the court "make it impossible for fairness."
"Not to have a fair trial in this situation will lead to more war, no possibility of reconciliation," he told CNN.
"The court is not independent. It can't function well," Clark said. "How do you begin a trial before five judges, (then) bring in new people?"
In post-Saddam Iraq, where sectarian tensions fueled by a Sunni-led insurgency are threatening to tear the country apart, Iraq's Shiite Muslim leaders have said they want the trial to be swift, a reflection of the oppression they, and Iraq's Kurds, suffered under Saddam's regime.
The case being heard, which involves the killings of about 140 Shiites in a crackdown after a 1982 assassination attempt against Saddam, was chosen because officials believed it could be tried quickly.
Saddam and seven co-defendants could face the death penalty if convicted.
Shiites and Kurds, including senior politicians who opposed Saddam's rule for decades, found the relative freedom he has had in the courtroom an affront. Defense lawyers and international observers have complained that Shiite politicians' statements on the trial have amounted to political pressure on the judges.
Sunnis loyal to the former leader took heart from his outbursts during the hearings, which are televised nationwide with a 30-minute delay.
Amin, who presided over the first seven sessions of the trial since it began Oct. 19, submitted his resignation Jan. 15 after complaints by politicians and officials that he failed to maintain control of the proceedings.
Initially, court officials said Amin would be replaced by his deputy, Saeed al-Hammash, a Shiite.
However, the government commission responsible for purging members of Saddam's Baath Party complained last week that al-Hammash should not serve as chief judge because of his one-time membership in the former ruling party. Al-Hammash was transferred off the case entirely.

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