It's Not Just Saddam On Trial

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.



Saddam Hussein's war crimes trial finally begins Wednesday but don't expect the proceedings to remind you of any other high-profile, mega-trial you might have seen here stateside in the past decade.

In fact, don't expect anything. When a brand-new justice system gears up for its first big test, and that test happens to be a capital trial for the Mother of all Middle-Eastern dictators, anything can happen. Better to expect chaos and then be pleasantly surprised if order ensues, right?

Five judges will determine the fate of Hussein and seven other defendants, all of whom are charged with war crimes stemming from the execution of approximately 140 men in Dujail, Iraq in the early 1980s. The men were killed - often at the Abu Ghraib prison - after an assassination attempt on Hussein in 1982.

Capital punishment is the almost certain outcome of the trial, as it is in many cases here in the States which pit creepy and unpopular defendants against outraged citizens.

Why a Dujail trial before a trial involving Hussein's more infamous (and widespread) alleged crimes? Because the Iraqi government figured it would be best to start off with something relatively simple.

And it ought to tell you something about what lies ahead for the newly-created justice system that in Iraq a mass murder case involving 140 or so victims constitutes a "relatively simple" case. By contrast, remember, the Oklahoma City bombing trial, still the largest murder trial in American history, involved 168 deaths.

Hussein has no traditional legal defense. He can't point to some other maniacal dictator and blame him. He can't argue that the witnesses against him are falsely testifying because they made plea deals with the government. He can't say that prosecutors haven't found the bodies or identified the victims. He can't assert an insanity defense or hire Barry Scheck to come in and talk about the fallibility of scientific evidence.

Hussein can, however, try to turn his legal fight into a political and historical battle and that's precisely what he already has told the world that he will do. He will blame America and her allies. He will blame his domestic opponents. He will blame Iran.

He will blame everyone and anyone he can think of as a way of offering his view that he is a victim in all of this: a noble leader who was just trying to do what he thought was best for his beleaguered country. And there will be no federal rules of evidence or judicial decorum orders to rein him in.

Forget about the ultimate disposition of the case. It is preordained — as are the results of virtually all post-trial tribunals like this. Forget about Iraq's new appellate process — it's still being hashed out even as this trial begins.

Forget about a worldwide impression of the trial as a fair process that gave all of the defendants every universally-recognized due process right to which they were entitled. That doesn't necessarily happen here in America in every case so why should anyone expect it to happen in a place an impartial judiciary was a fantasy for decades during Hussein's reign? This event is more about politics and history and tradition than it is about the law and everyone involved knows it.

So the only open questions about Wednesday's proceeding are whether Hussein will push his judges to their wit's end even at the outset of his trial and what those judges will say and do if he does.

  • Robb Todd

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