- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 28, 2006

BAGHDAD — The troubled trial of Saddam Hussein resumes today with a new judge and with international human rights groups saying political interference is threatening the tribunal’s independence.

Saddam and his seven co-defendants are charged in the deaths of about 140 Shi’ite Muslims following an assassination attempt against the former Iraqi leader in the Shi’ite town of Dujail in 1982. The defendants could face death by hanging if convicted.

The trial, which began Oct. 19, has been plagued by delays, chaotic outbursts by Saddam and the assassination of two defense lawyers.

The proceeding was due to resume last Tuesday after a month’s break but was postponed because court officials said some witnesses had not returned from pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

However, court officials told the Associated Press the main reason for the delay was that judges were upset by a decision to appoint and then remove another chief judge to replace Rizgar Mohammed Amin, a Kurd who stepped down Jan. 15.

Chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Mousawi said that Raouf Rasheed Abdel-Rahman, a Kurdish jurist, was expected to head the five-judge panel when the session resumes in the heavily guarded Green Zone.

Judge Amin cited health reasons for his decision to step down, but politicians had complained about the slow pace of the proceedings and Judge Amin’s patience in the face of frequent outbursts by Saddam and one of his co-defendants, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti.

Judge Amin’s deputy, Saeed al-Hammash, had been expected to take over as chief judge but was moved off the case after complaints that he once was a member of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party. Judge al-Hammash, a Shi’ite, denied Ba’ath membership and maintained he was the victim of a conspiracy.

One of Saddam’s defense lawyers said his team would file motions today questioning the court’s independence and legitimacy because of Judge Amin’s resignation.

“The trial is going through a legal crisis,” lawyer Khamis al-Obeidi said. “The new chief judge needs a long time to familiarize himself with the details of the case.”

Similar questions also were raised by Human Rights Watch, which expressed doubt even before the proceeding started in October about whether Saddam and the others could receive a fair trial before an Iraqi court.

“The resignation of Judge Amin and the transfer of Judge al-Hammash mean that two of the five judges who have heard the witness testimony are now off the case,” Richard Dicker, a Human Rights Watch official, said. “It will be difficult for the new judges to impartially evaluate the testimony they missed, damaging the integrity of the trial.”

Miranda Sissons of the International Center for Transitional Justice, an observer at the trial, also expressed concern about political pressure “and the degree of turnover” in the panel.

“We need consistency and regularity for the court to have credibility,” she said by telephone from New York.

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