Whatever happened to Saddam’s trial?

Iraq In the year since he was captured and hustled away to a secret location, former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has taken up gardening, undergone a hernia operation and written poetry that one visitor describes as ‘rubbishy.’

What he has not done is meet with any of the 20 lawyers who claim to represent him. And with the country in the grips of an insurgency that remains strong, predicting when Iraq’s most famous prisoner will be tried is no easier now than it was on the day he was pulled from his hiding spot in a spider hole near his hometown of Tikrit.

When Saddam first appeared before an Iraqi court in July, some officials predicted a swift trial. Ever since, they have said October, November, or by the end of the year. Now, they expect it no earlier than the beginning of 2006, Iraq’s National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie told The Associated Press.

‘This is going to be probably the trial of the century and we have to get it right,’ al-Rubaie said. ‘We can’t suddenly try him and sentence him to either life in prison or whatever, execute him a 100 times as some people want to do.’

Officials say the work of gathering evidence – documents, mass grave sites, testimony from victims -continues away from the public eye and beyond the reach of the insurgents. They insist that it is being done meticulously and legitimately.

American officials with the Department of Justice’s Regime Crimes Liaison Office are advising the Iraqi Special Tribunal on the process of bringing Saddam to trial. The Americans paid the tribunal’s budget of $75 million (?57 million) for 2004-2005.

But with elections approaching on Jan. 30, the Iraqi government is in flux and is likely to stay that way for another year until a new constitution is drafted and another round of elections are held next December.

Trainers also face a dearth of qualified Iraqi prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges. If proper attorneys are found, they take a new kind of risk -threat from both the guerrillas, believed to be mostly Sunni Muslims like Saddam, or others trying to stymie the trial.

There are few Iraqi lawyers willing to represent him, while prosecutors fear challenging him. The same goes for the judges overseeing the case, slowing its work.

‘At various points in time they have had a number of judges who have since withdrawn,’ said Hania Mufti, a spokeswoman for New York-based Human Rights Watch who has followed the case. ‘So that’s been a practical problem on the ground.’

That fact has been sobering for the Americans, who predicted Saddam’s capture would cripple the insurgency. They portrayed violence immediately after his capture as the last gasp of desperate loyalists.

‘Saddam’s era is over,’ Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said days after Saddam was captured. ‘But it takes time for people to accept the changes.’

Since then, the guerillas have continued exacting a bloody toll against U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies.

The United States is increasing troop levels to 150,000, higher than they were when the war began, in hopes of providing safety for elections set for Jan. 30.

U.S. attention has also shifted to another figure – Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – believed to be leading the brutal campaign of hostage-takings, beheadings and bombings that victimized both Americans and Iraqis.

Al-Rubaie said officials suspect, however, that Saddam may have played a role in the continued insurgency.

‘We have evidence that he has prepared for the military defeat and he has prepared his party for military resistance after the liberation,’ al-Rubaie said. ‘And there is mounting evidence that he has put in motion and put in place a mechanism and capabilities, money, planning, training, to start immediately after the liberation.’

Saddam first appeared before the court July 1, without a lawyer. He was presented with seven preliminary charges that included gassing thousands of Kurds in 1988, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the suppression of 1991 revolts by Kurds and Shiites, the murders of religious and political leaders and the mass displacement of Kurds in the 1980s.

From Saddam’s standpoint, little headway has been made since. He is said to have a 20-member legal team with lawyers from Belgium, Britain, France, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya and Tunisia, but has met none of them. A lawyer was supposed to meet him for the first time last Wednesday but the U.S. military canceled it.

‘Denying him this right is a serious breach of international protocols,’ Saddam’s lawyers, who were appointed by Saddam’s wife, Sajida, said in a statement Sunday timed with the anniversary.

The Jordan-based team called for Saddam’s immediate release, calling his detention ‘illegal right from the very beginning.’

‘We are extremely disappointed,’ said Ziad al-Khasawneh. ‘Nobody knows anything, except God and the American administration.’

Eleven other defendants then appeared one by one to hear the charges against them.

On Sunday, a lawyer said some of the detainees have gone on hunger strike in protest of their detention, a lawyer said Sunday. A U.S. military official confirmed that some had been turning back their main meals but continue to snack on military rations.

‘They don’t acknowledge the legality of their trials or their detention,’ said the lawyer, Izzat Aref, an Iraqi appointed by the family of former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.

Some Iraqis claim the process has been politicized. Speculation once swirled that Saddam would be hastily tried and executed during the hubbub of the U.S. election. Salem Chalabi, the tribunal director, was abruptly ousted in September, and accused Prime Minister Ayad Allawi of pushing for show trials to boost his popularity ahead of the Jan. 30 elections. ‘Saddam could reveal very important information,’ said Entifadh Qanbar, spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress party.

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