Notebook: Saddam Trial Meanders Along

This report was written by CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey.



There are as many theories on how to measure what is happening to Iraq as there are think tanks, political agendas, reporters, pundits and armchair generals. So perhaps the lead in news agency reports today summed it up best: a series of numbers.

  • The American military claimed it killed 41 insurgents; the insurgents definitely killed 19 people, including eight policemen; 40 mortar rounds were reported fired into a British military base near Basra, and an insurgent video showed the body of what it claimed was one U.S. serviceman being dragged across a field after a helicopter was shot down.

  • In what may be the only calm and nearly totally secure place in the country, justice was being sought for 148 people killed 24 years ago.

  • The trial of Saddam Hussein and seven henchmen finally reached its real beginning in a bunkered and heavily defended court room deep inside the fortified "International Zone" today when the charges against them were officially read out in court. Up to this point, what looked to outsiders as a trial were in fact the preparations for one; evidence presented so the judges could decide the crimes to be addressed.

  • Seeing the process for the first time, watching Saddam enter the court, followed one by one by his shuffling cohorts, was almost surreal.

    With the exception of Saddam, who retains an air of arrogance, the others, dressed with only one exception in traditional robes and keffiyehs (headdresses), looked like elders from a peasant village. That such men could have inspired and maintained the depth of fear that they did to rule Iraq brought to mind Hannah Arendt's famous phrase from her writings on the trial of Adolph Eichmann: "the banality of evil."

  • The charge sheet, which made the defendants eligible for trial for crimes against humanity and offenses under the Iraqi criminal code, was truly a catalogue of evil. The judge, a balding man with a look that is scholarly with a hint of grandfather, read out a list of crimes that included torture, murder, imprisonment under horrible conditions and execution of minors — giving names to many of the victims.

    None of it seemed to mean anything to Saddam. Standing before the judge, dressed in a dark suit and white shirt with no tie, he decried the legality of the court, and insisted he was "the president of Iraq," a claim the judge informed him was no longer valid.

    To those watching, it was a moment of almost comic relief — one of a surprising number that can be found beneath the surface of this most serious and essential of procedures.

  • When the defense attorneys, who wear green sashes to contrast them from the prosecutors, who wear red, complained that there were not enough chairs to accommodate their numbers, the judge reminded them that it had been agreed that the room was too small for any more. In an interjection not repeated in English by the official translator, but picked up by Arabic-speaking reporters, Saddam suggested they could move to another palace, which had bigger rooms.

    Quite apart from any such ideas from Saddam being non-starters, moving would be an impossible task. The courtroom has been especially constructed to accommodate the trial and keep it secure in what must surely be the most insecure "international zone" in the world. Ringed by blast barriers and barbed wire and with checkpoints at every entrance, the zone still has guard posts inside it and a manned tank on one street at least.

  • Reporters accredited to cover the trial have all been security vetted and even had iris scans taken. Cell phones must be handed in before boarding an armored bus to go to the venue, where even more stringent security measures are in place — none of which can be described under pain of being banned form the trial. The list of dos, don'ts, instructions and regulations fills four pages.

    That said, every effort has been made to ensure that reports can be filed in some form from the venue. The press room is equipped with computer terminals with Internet access, phones that work on 800 numbers to the United States, and closed-circuit TV and translation audio for those who have to leave the press gallery to file. A search of the addresses logged onto on the computer I was using indicated that covering the trial can become tedious. In the middle of a list of news sites there was one for eBay.

    However, dipping out of the trial forces you to run the risk of missing small but telling moments. When the first defense witness, who was kept anonymous behind a screen, began his testimony, he did so with a long list of plaudits for the defendant and his family. Pressed by the judge to stick to telling what he had seen, the witness said he had not been in the village of Dujayl on the day of what is referred to as "the events" took place. Logically, the judge asked him why he was a witness. The man indicated that he was not actually sure.

  • The judge also had to intervene on two occasions when defendants identified the hidden witnesses. "Please," the judge said, "don't say their names."

    Certainly it is a far cry from the kind of courtroom drama as portrayed on prime-time TV shows in the United States, where invariably defense lawyers make at least one leap towards the bench shouting "objection" when hearsay evidence is offered. But then, in this trial the judge would not be growling "sustained," since he was the one asking the questions and encouraging a witness who said he did not see anything to tell the court what he heard.

    The court appears to be going out of its way to err on the side of even-handedness, granting far more leniency to interjections and arguments from lawyers and even defendants than would seem normal, although the judge does not allow anything to get too far out of hand.

  • At the end of the day, the distinct impression was that while this may not be a trial that fits the forms and standards we expect and are used to, it seems to suit this time and place. In the end, it will help make sense of the numbers.

    But don't count on that happening being any time soon. The hope when the procedure began was that the court would sit up to four times a week. This was only its 24th session in almost seven months — and the defense has just begun to put its case.

    • John Kreiser

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