A Shaky Start But A Fine Finish

Michael Moore beckons in "Capitalism: A Love Story" (2009). Documentary film Overture Films

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.



Rizgar Mohammed Amin had the toughest judging job in the world Wednesday.

As head of the first Iraqi special tribunal, he had to gingerly stare down Saddam Hussein while trying to treat the nasty former dictator of Iraq with a modicum of respect and fairness. It wasn't always pretty, especially at first, but in the end Judge Amin got just the right balance of patience and resolve, courtesy and grit.

Even though a prosecutor read the charges against Saddam and the seven other men who are charged with ordering the massacre of about 140 Iraqis from the village of Dujail in 1982, Judge Amin clearly now and for the foreseeable future is the face of Iraqi justice.

And what a face! Grey-haired and polished, animated but not eager, the Kurdish jurist easily won the battle of images on this vital first day of the rest of Saddam Hussein's life.

It started right away. Saddam was asked as a ministerial matter to state his name and occupation. He refused. At least 10 times Judge Amin asked Saddam merely to confirm his identity for the five-judge panel court. And at least 10 times Saddam refused, insisting upon trying to challenge the panel's authority to conduct the proceedings.

No American judge would have permitted a criminal defendant to get away with such rude behavior. But, then, no American judge has ever had to face Saddam Hussein in the dock at the start of a trial that marks the nascence of the rule of law in Iraq.

"Who are you? I want to know who you are," Saddam immediately asked the judge upon rising from his seat.

The judge told him. And then the judge explained that Saddam needed to tell the panel who he was so that the day's proceedings could continue.

Over and over again, Judge Amin patiently reminded Saddam that he would have time to make his political speeches challenging the court's authority and power and jurisdiction. Over and over again, the judge ignored Saddam's attempts to turn the start of a trial into a shouting match or a debate.
It was an unthinkable exchange for those of us who are used to American courtroom decorum.

But, remember, this is a man, Saddam, who has spent the better part of a generation answering to no one and doing as he pleased. This is a man, remember, who probably wasn't told what to do once in 30 years before he was captured in a hole in the ground in December 2003. And this is a court, remember, that is just up and running amid the chaos that is post-war Iraq.

Some, then, might see Judge Amin's temperance as fatal judicial weakness, as a self-defeating Lance-Ito-like response to a serious and sustained courtroom challenge. And in most cases, I would tend to agree. Judges are best when they are fair and firm; when they let even the most contentious litigants know that they, the judge, control every facet of courtroom life, from who speaks and when to who gets up and who sits down. And most observers, including myself, predicted that the tribunal would have to clamp down on Saddam lest it be perceived as allowing the former ruler to do what he did best — rule without consensus.

Judge Amin did not exercise this level of control Wednesday over Saddam Hussein. But I don't think he had to — or, more precisely, he is better off for not having done so.

I think the genius of the judge's day was the contrast he provided to the bullying, shrill, former Iraqi leader. Whereas Saddam came off as brutish and whiny, Amin came off as genial and calming. Whereas the former tyrant was diminished by his petty stubborness — even soldiers, remember, give their name, rank and serial number to their captors — the judge's stature was enhanced by his magnanimity.

Many in the international human rights community see this trial as a sham, as a kangaroo court that is going to "have the trial and then hang him" as they use to say in the Wild West. And perhaps in the end they will be proven right. One polite day from a judge does not constitute due process in America, Iraq or anywhere else.

But, still, Judge Amin sent a not-so-subtle message Wednesday with his demeanor that no matter how much Saddam intends to misbehave in court, the court itself will not lower itself to that level of conflict. That, alone, begins to be worthy of the sort of authority, respect and power that the tribunal itself desperately needs to show the world, and the Iraqi people, that it has.

Aside from the mano-a-mano confrontation, there was little else about the proceedings that were remarkable, unless you count the atrocious technical problems that occurred at the start of the trial. Predictably, the proceedings were adjourned after only a few hours when the judges granted a defense motion for more time. And, predictably, Saddam repeated his argument (think of a child putting his hands over his ears and shouting to himself in order to pretend not to hear anything) that since he is still the duly-elected President of Iraq, the tribunal is meaningless.

"I do not respond to this so-called court, with all due respect to its people," Saddam told the judges and the world, "and I retain my constitutional right as the president of Iraq. Neither do I recognize the body that has designated and authorized you, nor the aggression, because all that has been built on false basis is false."

Get used to it. We are going to hear that argument, in many different forms, over and over again, until the tribunal renders judgment against Saddam.

In fact, Saddam will probably be screaming out those words on the day of his final judgment, when in all likelihood he hanged from the neck until dead in some town square somewhere in the country he loved and then ruined.

  • Robb Todd

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