Trial And Error In Baghdad

Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, front center, and Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, back center, berate the court during their trial in Baghdad, Monday Dec. 5, 2005.
Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and

It is jarring to watch the trial of Saddam Hussein. Even if the translation from Arabic to English were much better than it is, even if we could understand all the cultural nuances that abound inside that secured courtroom half a world away, the pace, process and decorum of the trial does not come close to comporting with our notions of what a criminal trial should look like.

Tuesday's proceedings, for example, ended with most of the major players screaming at each other in court. Saddam told the judge to "go to hell" after complaining about mundane things (his clothes) and serious things (like the court's jurisdiction).

Witnesses and defense attorneys screamed and swore at one another before the session ended and even the normally subdued chief judge, Rizgar Mohammed Amin, lost his temper and began to yell.

Think "The Three Stooges Go On Trial for Crimes Against Humanity" and you get somewhat of an idea of how chaotic things got in court today. Another few sessions like this one and even the O.J. Simpson criminal trial will seem solemn and dignified by comparison.

The judges, especially Amin, seem to have lost control of a trial they absolutely must control in order to bridge the gap between the chaotic legal system that now exists in Iraq and the dispassionate one that must emerge.

Saddam is growing increasingly belligerent in court. Defense lawyers for him and his co-defendants are growing increasingly disrespectful of the court's authority while the judges themselves seem to be increasingly unsure and indecisive about their own rulings and the extent of the law's power. Instead of the judges putting on a "show" of strength and control in this "show trial," it is Saddam and his gang who are putting on a "show" of chaos and anger.

With so much riding on public perceptions of the trial, with so much at stake legally, politically, militarily and historically, the devolving in-court dynamic is not a good sign.

It is entirely appropriate in this trial for the judges to allow the defendants and their lawyers to raise legal arguments and even to make political points about the jurisdiction of the court even to hold the trial.

As far as I am concerned, the more Saddam rants and raves now about these issues the less support he will have following the trial when he claims that he was not given his proper due in court.

But it is not appropriate for these outbursts to overcome the essence of the trial, which is what now is beginning to happen inside the courtroom inside the Green Zone inside a beleaguered Baghdad.

Saddam should get a voice, even a loud voice, in the trial process. But his loud, shrill voice should not be permitted to shout down that process. It is important for the world to see that Iraq can and will offer its former despot more justice than he was willing to mete out when he was in charge.

But it is even more important for the world to see that in the new Iraq no man, not even Saddam himself, is above the law.