Last Updated December 29, 2006
Saddam Hussein appears in a courtroom in Baghdad, July 1, 2004. (Associated Press)
In rejecting Saddam Hussein's formal appeal, Iraq's highest court set the stage for one last drama in the fall of the brutal dictator.
The court's ruling upheld the death penalty that was set by the special Iraqi High Tribunal on Nov. 5 and meant the former Iraqi strongman would go to the gallows by Jan. 25 — or within 30 days of his appeal being rejected.
Indeed, chief judge Aref Shahen said as much when he announced the decision of the nine-member appeals court in a very brief meeting with international journalists in Baghdad earlier this week.
No further legal appeals were possible within the country's legal system but, as the New York Times reported, there is a clause within the new Iraq constitution that says the president (Jalal Talabani) must approve all death sentences.
Talabani personally opposes the death penalty but in recent months he has allowed hangings to go ahead, and the pressure on him to permit the hanging of Saddam must have been enormous.
Shortly after the appeals court ruled, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said there would be no delay in carrying out the court-ordered death sentence.
"No one can oppose the decision to execute the criminal Saddam," al-Maliki told Agence France Presse.
Even Saddam seemed to recognize his days were numbered. In a letter written from his prison cell, the man who ruled Iraq from 1979 until the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 said he was willing to die as a martyr for his countrymen, so that they would unite against the foreign invaders.
"I sacrifice myself," Saddam wrote. "If God wills it, he will place me among the true men and martyrs."
The abrupt execution — it was carried out within hours of Saddam being handed over to Iraqi authorities by the U.S. — does, however, leave one important aspect of Saddam's controversial rule unresolved: The allegations of genocide against tens of thousands of Iraq's ethnic Kurds.
The special tribunal and the appeals court dealt only with the one completed case, involving the execution of 148 Shia men and teenage boys in the northern town of Dujail in 1982, following a failed assassination attempt against Saddam that was linked to the town.
Two of his co-defendants were also sentenced to death by the tribunal: Barzan Ibrahim, Saddam's half-brother and the country's former intelligence chief; and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, the former head of Iraq's Revolutionary Court.
(The appeals court approved the lesser sentences handed out to three other defendants but said the life sentence given to Taha Yassin Ramadan, the former vice-president, was too lenient and should be reassessed by the tribunal. An eighth defendant was acquitted.)
The special tribunal
Within days of Saddam's capture in December 2003, the Iraqi Governing Council, the country's interim ruling body in the wake of the invasion, set up the special High Tribunal to try the former president and other top officials.
The American military had initially suspended any use of the death penalty when it toppled the Hussein regime. But the provisional governing council reinstated it, arguing it was needed for security purposes.
On July 17, 2005, after reviewing two million documents and interviewing 7,000 witnesses, the special tribunal filed the first formal criminal charges against Saddam, dealing with the summary execution of the Shia in Dujail.
In April 2006, Saddam and six others were charged with genocide in connection with a poison gas attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988. That was one of two trials that were supposed to deal with Saddam's campaign against the Kurds, a campaign that is said to have resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 Kurds.
The special tribunal was composed of 40 judges and prosecutors, some of whom met with their counterparts at the international war crimes tribunals at The Hague to learn how they dealt with atrocities in the Balkans, Rwanda and Sierra Leone.
At the time, Iraq's ambassador to Canada , Howard Ziad, told CBC News that the tribunal was set up to avoid some of the problems that war crimes tribunals in The Hague have experienced, such as trials that dragged on for years.
"Justice must be done," Ziad said. "Iraq mustn't forget the crimes committed, the atrocities committed by this tyrant. It is important for the average Iraqi to know what this man did to make Iraq a rogue state."
The entire prosecution team also received eight days of training in international humanitarian law, the laws of war and other legal issues.
The names of the judges and prosecutors on the tribunal have been kept secret to protect them from retribution. Despite that, one of them was shot and killed by gunmen in Baghdad in March 2004.
The trial itself
The trial was conducted in a heavily fortified courtroom in Baghdad's Green Zone. Two courtrooms were built in the old Baathist party headquarters. The U.S. provided $138 million to renovate the building as well as to support a team of 50 American, British and Australian lawyers, investigators, forensic experts and archivists in the liaison office.
In the months after Saddam was captured, his legal team swelled to include 1,500 volunteers and at least 22 lead lawyers who come from several countries, including the U.S., France, Jordan, Iraq and Libya.
Among that group was former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, an outspoken critic of American involvement in Iraq.
That initial team was headed by Ziad al-Khasawna, who resigned on July 7, 2005, after charging that some of the team's American members were trying to run the defence and soft-pedal the U.S. occupation of the country. He also accused Saddam's eldest daughter, Raghad, of favouring the Americans and non-Arabs on the defence team because she thought they had a better chance of winning the case.
On Aug. 8, 2005, Saddam's family announced that the entire legal team had been dismissed and replaced with Iraqi lawyer Khalil Dulaimi. Dulaimi was the first lawyer to meet Saddam, in January 2005, and Saddam reportedly liked him.
Since the trial began, three members of the legal team defending Saddam and his seven co-accused have been killed. Saadoun Sughaiyer al-Janabi and Adel al-Zubeidi were killed in separate shootings in the fall of 2005. Khamis al-Obeidi, who represented Saddam and his half-brother Barzan Ibrahim, was abducted and killed in June 2006 by men wearing police uniforms.
Because Saddam was not a lawyer, he was not able to defend himself in court and therefore wasn't able to make speeches as often or slow down the proceedings as former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic did in his war crimes trial in The Hague.
Still, that did not prevent him from yelling at the judges, denouncing their authority and basically describing the entire proceedings as a political sham.
The trial itself took just over a year and was marked by several outbursts from both judges and defendants.
The international group Human Rights Watch has denounced the fairness of the proceedings. Among other things, it argues, judges were replaced mid-trial, including the original chief judge who was pushed out by political pressure from the new Iraqi government.
Defence counsel were prevented from cross-examining some witnesses and, when they boycotted the proceedings in objection to certain procedural decisions, they were replaced by court-appointed lawyers without, some said, adequate training.
According to HRW, no written transcript was kept of the trial and at least some of the paperwork has been lost.
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