NYC rights group calls Saddam trial 'questionable,' criticizes leader's death sentence

Monday, November 20th 2006, 6:35 am

By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Human Rights Watch said Monday that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was not given a fair trial, claiming in a report that attorneys and judges undermined the legitimacy of the process by staging repeated walkouts and failing to uphold standards of international law.

In a 97-page report, the group called the guilty verdict ``questionable'' and said the Iraqi High Tribunal was not equipped to handle such a complex case. The document was based on observation of the trial and interviews with court officials, lawyers and other key parties, the group said.

On Nov. 5, the court sentenced Saddam and two other senior members of his regime to death by hanging for ordering the execution of nearly 150 Shiite Muslims from the Iraqi city of Dujail following a 1982 attempt on Saddam's life.

The New York-based rights group said it found ``serious procedural flaws,'' citing shortcomings in the timely disclosure of incriminating evidence. It also said that the defendants were not allowed to properly confront witnesses, and that the judges at times did not maintain an impartial demeanor.

``The court's conduct, as documented in this report, reflects a basic lack of understanding of fundamental fair trial principles, and how to uphold them in the conduct of a relatively complex trial,'' the report said. ``The result is a trial that did not meet key fair trial standards. Under such circumstances, the soundness of the verdict is questionable.''

The chief prosecutor, Jaafar al-Mousawi, defended the trial Monday, calling it ``fair and transparent.'' The verdict, he said, ``was fair enough to a dictator who killed dozens of innocents.''

``There were only simple administrative flaws that did not affect the verdict,'' he said.

The Iraqi court was created in 2003 after the U.S. invasion to prosecute cases of human rights violations in Iraq.

In the report, Human Rights Watch chastised defense lawyers for staging repeated walkouts, saying the tactic ``created the strong impression that some counsel deliberately sought to delay or obstruct the course of the trial.''

Chief defense counsel Khalil al-Dulaimi, who voiced support for the report's conclusions, defended attorneys' frequent boycotts of the proceedings.

``This was a political trial, not a legal one,'' he said by phone from Britain. ``What can we do when the rights of the defense lawyers are breached in the courtroom, when they shut our mouths, when they threaten our lives?''

The report said defense lawyers were provided with inferior protection, with three being killed in the course of the trial. Witnesses, too, were left unprotected following their testimony, it said.

Defense attorneys were inadequately trained in international criminal law and their performance was ``generally poor,'' the report said.

``No consistent and identifiable argument as to why the prosecution case was wrong or flawed was developed,'' it said.

Human Rights Watch, which is against the death penalty in general, also said the death sentence against Saddam is ``an inherently cruel and inhumane punishment,'' and ``in the wake of an unfair trial is indefensible.''

An appeals court is expected to rule on the verdict and death sentence by mid-January. Saddam's defense team must present an appeal to a higher, nine-judge panel by Dec. 5.

Last week, Saddam's lawyer complained that the court was ignoring his requests for documents to appeal the guilty verdict. There was no immediate comment from Iraqi court officials.

``The verdict against President Saddam Hussein is purely political and all the conditions of a fair trial _ as stipulated under international law _ have been gravely violated, including the right to appeal the verdict in a court of cassation,'' Saddam's chief lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi said in a written statement.

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