Hussein Is Hospitalized, Being Fed After Collapse
With his trial on charges of mass murder about to resume, Saddam Hussein collapsed in his jail cell Sunday, more than two weeks into a hunger strike that had left him gaunt and physically deteriorated, authorities said.
After Hussein’s collapse, the defense team pledged to boycott the remainder of the trial due to resume today in what some believed was a last-ditch effort to undermine the legitimacy of the war crimes tribunal. But prosecutors pledged that the trial would resume with or without Hussein and his lawyers.
Hussein was hospitalized and being treated by American medical personnel following his collapse. A U.S. military spokesman said Hussein was voluntarily being fed through a tube and that his condition was not life-threatening.
The defense team’s closing arguments were due to start today. The lawyers said the restrictions placed on them by the court meant that they could not mount an adequate defense or closing argument. They said they would not return to the tribunal, and would fight for Hussein at the appellate level.
“We will go to the appeals court,” said Najib Nueimi, one of Hussein’s lawyers. “We have had enough; they don’t follow procedures.”
Despite Hussein’s condition, “there will be a trial” today, said Jaafar Mousawi, the chief prosecutor, “and if the defense attorneys don’t show up, the appointed defense attorneys will carry out their job.”
Nueimi objected to the court-appointed defense lawyers, complaining that they were Shiite Muslims who had no desire to see Hussein get a fair trial.
Hussein, who is from Iraq’s Sunni Muslim Arab minority, faces the death penalty if he is convicted on charges that he ordered the massacre of 148 Shiites from the village of Dujayl in 1982. The alleged mass killings were in retribution for an attempt on Hussein’s life when he visited the village. The proceeding is likely to be the first of several trials dealing with the crimes of the regime toppled in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Hussein is set to go on trial again next month for war crimes committed against Iraq’s Kurdish minority.
Nueimi said prosecutors wanted the defense team in the courtroom so they could claim that Hussein’s trial was legal, but that they refused to let its members aggressively defend the former dictator.
“They want us to be there,” Nueimi said, “so they can hang him and say there was a fair trial.”
Michael P. Scharf, a Case Western Reserve University law professor who helped train judges for the tribunal, said Hussein had been given ample opportunity to address the court, and that the proceeding would not be harmed if it went on without the defendant.
“He cannot rob the court of legitimacy because he has voluntarily made himself ill,” Scharf said.
Scharf criticized the defense team for making overtly political arguments in the trial, and said Hussein might be better off if his counsel boycotted today’s session and the court-appointed lawyers made the closing arguments.
After Hussein’s collapse, his defense team began drawing a parallel to former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who died during his war crimes trial at The Hague.
“They want the same thing that happened to Milosevic to happen to Saddam,” Nueimi said. “We think something unusual is going on.”
Before his death, Milosevic had claimed he was being poisoned. But investigators ruled out poisoning and said Milosevic died of a heart attack that occurred after he took unprescribed medication.
Nueimi said the defense team told American military officials that Hussein’s condition was worsening, only to be told his health was fine. Army Lt. Col. Keir-Kevin Curry, a spokesman for the U.S. detention command, said Hussein continued to refuse to eat but was voluntarily receiving nutrition through a feeding tube.
“We’ve got medical professionals on site who evaluate their medical condition on a daily basis for those who are refusing meals,” Curry said.
Tariq Harab, an Iraqi legal expert, said the hunger strike was a delaying tactic.
“He wants to gain time because he knows the court’s verdict is close to coming out,” Harab said. “One reason for this strike is to draw the attention of the media. Lately no lights have been focused on him, and he wants to get them back.”
Closing arguments can legally go on without Hussein, Harab said. But no verdict can be announced without the defendant present, and Harab said the chief judge might decide to postpone the session, for perhaps as long as two weeks.
Hussein and two co-defendants began the hunger strike July 7, Curry said.
The defense team has said Hussein began the strike in order to object to what he saw as poor security for his lawyers. Last month, a key member of Hussein’s legal team, Khamis Ubaidi, was killed after gunmen abducted him from his home. Ubaidi was the third member of the legal team to be slain since the trial began in 2005.
Nueimi said Hussein had also been protesting the restrictions the court had placed on the defense team’s ability to question witnesses.
Last month, the judge in the case cut off defense lawyers after they had called 62 witnesses, and ordered the final phase of the trial to begin.
“We have been frozen out,” Nueimi said. “We have no way of defending him. We should be allowed to express ourselves.”
During the hunger strike, Hussein has been drinking coffee, tea with honey and occasionally juice, but has eaten no solid food, defense lawyers said. Nueimi said his client was not trying to kill himself and did not intend to die.
“He doesn’t believe in suicide,” Nueimi said. “But he does not have an alternative.”
Raid Juhi, the Iraqi High Tribunal’s chief investigative judge and a court spokesman, said Hussein was not on a real hunger strike. “He was taking honey,” Juhi said.
Mousawi, the chief prosecutor, said the collapse was real and that doctors had immediately examined Hussein. “It’s not an act that he is pulling,” he said.
Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi contributed to this report.