Hussein Defense in Chaos as Trial Nears

Times Staff Writers

Three weeks before he is due to stand trial for murder, Saddam Hussein’s defense is in turmoil.

The attorney for the deposed Iraqi president says he is only beginning to study the prosecution’s evidence of a 1982 massacre and has asked for a delay in the proceedings. Hussein’s defense team has been impaired by differences over strategy, limited access to its client, and an internal shake-up that recently stripped four of the five members of their authority to represent him before the Iraqi High Criminal Court.

This week, Hussein’s sole designated attorney petitioned the tribunal to postpone the first of the former leader’s many expected trials on charges of crimes against humanity. The trial of Hussein and seven former aides is scheduled to open Oct. 19 in a Baghdad courtroom.


Hussein was arrested in December 2003, eight months after being ousted in a U.S.-led military invasion. He and the former aides, imprisoned at a U.S. military base, are accused of being responsible for the 1982 slayings of 148 people in the predominantly Shiite Muslim town of Dujayl after an assassination attempt against him there.

On Sunday, designated attorney Khalil Dulaimi passed through a maze of armed checkpoints protecting the court headquarters to receive the prosecution case file. Before leaving the building, Dulaimi filed his motion seeking a delay. It notes that the court’s rules require the prosecutor to give the defense attorney access to the evidence against his client at least 45 days before trial.

“They had 2 1/2 years to prepare this case. They are giving us just three weeks,” Dulaimi said. “What’s the hurry? Saddam is not going anywhere.”

In addition, Dulaimi asked the court’s five-judge panel to send an 800-page dossier of testimony against Hussein back to the investigative judge because none of the more than 100 witnesses had been identified by name.

Both arguments foreshadow a broader campaign by the defense to portray the trials planned by U.S. and Iraqi investigators as unfair and illegitimate. The defense has complained that the trials are to be conducted by an American-tutored Iraqi court established under U.S. military occupation and that non-Iraqi lawyers whom Hussein wants to consult with have not been allowed to see him.

Iraqi officials say the worst crimes committed during the 24 years of Hussein’s Sunni Muslim-dominated regime, including state-orchestrated massacres of tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims and Kurds, will come to trial in as many as a dozen cases after the Dujayl verdict.

The timing of the first trial is politically sensitive: It is to begin four days after Iraq’s constitutional referendum and less than two months before Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.

Officials of the current government, a coalition led by Shiites and Kurds, have been promising for months to put Hussein on the stand, hoping to rally support by satisfying a popular demand for justice -- even at the risk of inflaming Sunni insurgents still loyal to Hussein.

The trial panel will consider Dulaimi’s request for a delay, a court official said, “but I don’t think they will accept it.” The reason stems from disarray among Hussein’s attorneys, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

Khamis Ubaidi, a veteran criminal lawyer, was also registered as a member of the team when he asked for and got a copy of the prosecution’s case file Aug. 10. That made Hussein’s entire defense team technically in possession of the file more than the required 45 days ahead of the trial date, the official said.

Ubaidi’s decision to plunge into the case undercut an alternative strategy among Hussein’s legal advisors to shun the court and postpone his day of reckoning as long as possible.

Dulaimi said in an interview this week that Ubaidi never showed him the file. Ubaidi said that was because Dulaimi avoided coming to look at it. The strategy was that “if he didn’t receive the case file, he could delay the trial for years,” Ubaidi said.

The differences came to a head when Raghad Saddam Hussein, the former president’s daughter and paymaster of the lawyers, dismissed all of them except Dulaimi and hired a London-based Iraqi spokesman, Abdel Haq Alani. The spokesman began making statements that the prosecution was withholding evidence and that Ubaidi was never part of Hussein’s team.

Eventually, Ubaidi said he persuaded Dulaimi that the trial might start whether or not the defense was ready and that he should obtain the prosecution’s file to prepare.

The former president’s legal battle has been beset by disorganization since his daughter, who lives in Jordan, last year set up a defense committee that eventually counted 2,000 volunteer lawyers from around the world, few of whom did any work on the case. Its two Jordanian chairmen were dismissed for grandstanding in the media, and the group was disbanded last month for being too unwieldy.

Hussein’s family is now being counseled by a smaller international team that includes former U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark, former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas and former Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella. Their mission, they say, is to lobby for a fair trial.

In a telephone interview this week, Clark said the biggest problem for the defense has been the decision by American jailers and Iraqi prosecutors to keep Hussein isolated. No lawyer was present in July 2004 when Hussein was first arraigned. He was first given access to counsel in December, a year after his arrest.

Dulaimi, 43, a relatively inexperienced lawyer who had not previously known Hussein, has seen him six times since -- always, he said, in the presence of U.S. soldiers. He and other Iraqi lawyers volunteered for the defense team and were referred to his family by the Iraqi Bar Assn.

He said that Hussein had asked to see a variety of more seasoned lawyers, including Clark, to help him prepare a defense, but that neither he nor they had received a definitive answer from U.S. and Iraqi officials.

“No lawyer Saddam Hussein has known before the U.S. invasion has seen him,” Clark said. “He never has had anything approaching counsel of his own choosing.... There has been no ability to begin to prepare a defense.”

Dulaimi said his Ramadi home had been searched twice in his absence by U.S. troops, who harassed his family and confiscated confidential legal papers.

“He won’t get a fair trial, he’ll get a political one,” the lawyer said. He said that he would argue during the trial that the entire procedure was illegal, but that he was also trying to prepare a defense against each charge.

Boudreaux reported from Baghdad and Weinstein from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Zainab Hussein in Baghdad contributed to this report.