Grandstanding in the Theater of the Absurd

Saddam has boycotted his trial after telling the judge to “go to hell”. He says the proceedings are nothing more than a US-staged sham with a pre-determined outcome. Does the outburst represent the petulant ramblings of an emotionally infantile defendant backed into a corner, or is there any real substance to his complaint?

Iraq’s former dictator Saddam Hussein has as much chance of a fair trial as George Bush has of playing Othello on Broadway. What should have been an opportunity for Iraqis to prove to the world that democracy and a transparent judicial process has finally come a-knocking, is turning out to be a major farce.

It all began with a Felliniesque vision when a long-haired and bearded Hussein looking like a half-crazed mendicant was dragged out of a spider hole before the cavernous regions of his throat were splashed large across our screens.

Serves him right you might think but keep in mind that showing a prisoner-of-war in such a humiliating fashion is a direct contravention of the Geneva Conventions and the rules of war.

So who cares about the rules of war nowadays when Torture Inc is conveying ghostly prisoner on specter jets to nebulous locations.

Call me old fashioned, but I do and, so I suspect does the EU as Condoleezza Rice is shortly to discover during her visit to Europe albeit behind closed doors. But I digresslet’s return to Iraq’s kangaroo court.

The person responsible for setting-up the tribunal is a decidedly dodgy individual. He is none other than Salem Chalabi, nephew of former Pentagon pin-up, bank embezzler and known CIA asset Ahmad Chalabi.

Salem, who was the subject of an arrest warrant for murder, is connected with Marc Zell, who runs “one of Israel’s fastest growing business-oriented law firms”.

But setting aside nepotism and sinister influences, from less than auspicious beginnings, the tribunal’s legitimacy is in tatters. Touted as an Iraqi affair, Saddam is still being held by occupation forces and was barred from having access to his legal team for months.

Then with no respect to International law, the Iraqi constitution was altered to provide for the death penalty while the country was still officially occupied.

Former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi promised before the cameras that Saddam would receive a transparent trial even as the Australian media published stories of how Allawi allegedly shot several detainees in the head at close range.

But such commitment to transparency was long before the world saw how Saddam had morphed from being a cowed and confused rag-bag into a feisty individual with delusions of his former grandeur out to ridicule the court and its officials.

From then on, reporters within the court were kept to a select few, kept behind a Perspex screen and banned from using mobile phones, notebooks and pens. Instead, they have to rely on censored transcripts put out by the occupation forces. Video and audio of Saddam’s appearances were heavily censored and he, too, was refused the use of writing materials.

In mid-November 1,000 lawyers quit Saddam’s defense team after two of their colleagues were slain. No matter, said Raid Juhi, the tribunal’s chief investigative judge. The withdrawal of the defense team “will not affect the work of the court” That’s right. Not this one anyway.

The tribunal was equally unfazed when a plot to assassinate the chief judge was uncovered and numerous prosecution witnesses threatened.

And on Sunday, the Sunni-led 1920 Revolution Brigades were apparently thwarted from implementing a plan to launch rockets at the court, which resumed on Monday.

The show must go on but this time without one of the five judges, who resigned from the tribunal after a sudden realization that there was a conflict of interest. Maintaining his personal longevity, perhaps?

On Monday, the court heard testimony relating to Saddam’s alleged massacre of 140 Shiites in Dujail, who were allegedly involved in an assassination attempt on the former dictator.

The great thing about these witnesses was that they were actually breathing instead of pushing up daisies like the previous one, whose testimony was pre-recorded on video and who was thus unavailable for cross-examination other than by a medium.

The session started out true to form. Former Attorney-General Ramsey Clark, who has appended himself to the defense team’s core of five advocates argued that the court was not constitutional because it had been set up by an occupying power. Furthermore, the law had been changed by the occupiers to allow for the death penalty.

But his weighty argument was brushed aside by the judge as though he was swatting an annoying fly. There were no legal tomes for this judge to study. No well-researched clerks and no adjournments to facilitate his study of a point of law recognized in civilized courts across the planet.

The defense team then turned to the important matter of their personal safety. And when the judge showed his disinterest, they promptly walked out giving Saddam and his half-brother Barzan Al-Tikriti the opportunity to stand and salute the Arab nation, adding “made in America” and “Long live Iraq”.

Feathers smoothed over the lawyers returned and the first witness vented for two hours over the terrible things he had witnessed as a youth at the hands of Saddam’s agents. Between sobs, he spoke of a meat grinder “with blood coming out of it and human hair underneath” that he had glimpsed while passing an open doorway.

Barzan called him a liar and suggested the witness should “act in the cinema”.

Then horror of horrors according to the witness the Iraqi leader once threw an ashtray at the head of a 14-year-old boy. Saddam suggested the sobbing man would benefit from medical treatment and ordered him not to interrupt.

Censored from the show were threats against the defendants hurled from the gallery prompting Barzan to literally spit before the vocal offender was ejected.

Frustrated with the proceedings, Barzan said “why not execute us and have done with it?” “I’m not afraid to death,” said Saddam.

With the leading judge obviously out of his depth and looking more and more like an Al-Jazeera host whose panel members insist on all talking at the same time, the trial was adjourned until Tuesday when a disembodied and electronically distorted woman’s voice inaudibly wafted from behind a curtain.

Now it seems that I’m not the only one who views Saddam’s ostensible brush with justice on par with the theatre of the absurd.

On Sunday, John Pace, a UN Human Rights official announced that the trial could never satisfy international standards due to a “paralysis in the legitimacy of the defense”.

Pace also called into question the Iraqi government’s moral high-ground citing the discovery of 173 emaciated and tortured detainees in the Iraqi Ministry of Interior.

Allawi, who was recently attacked in a mosque and who hopes to be re-elected into office, has compared the Iraqi government to Saddam when it comes to abuses of human rights.

Fair trial or not, does it really matter in Saddam’s case? After all, we all know that he’s an evil dictator who has gassed his own people and secreted vast mountains of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. That’s what we’ve been told – Right? The American president has voiced as much so it has to be true.

But, you see, it does matter. Justice must been seen to be done else we might as well descend to the law of the Old West and simply hang him high from the nearest lamp-post. I’m serious. This trial has a pre-arranged outcome and is nothing more than a political exercise for propaganda purposes; even more important now when the Iraqi elections are coming up.

If real judicial process was required then Saddam would be sitting in The Hague in front of judges experienced in human rights law; individuals without a political bone to pick or ethnic/religious bias.

Alternatively, the UN could have been asked to set-up a special tribunal in a neutral country. But whom are we kidding? Saddam is a man with secrets far too many to go beyond the walls of Camp Cropper, the so-called Green Zone court building and his fated execution chamber. Interestingly whenever he has tried to bring up the US occupiers in court he has been quickly silenced by a nervous looking trial judge.

Mr. Bush will be so proud. Yet another terrorist disposed of in the free and democratic utopia that God told him to found. Amen!

LINDA S. HEARD is a columnist on Mid-East affairs based in Egypt. She can be reached at