Justice: Talking Trash

Saddam Hussein had a point when he described his trial as a "farce." In five months of proceedings, the Iraqi High Tribunal has managed only 17 actual court days amid tight security, hunger strikes and boycotts by lawyers. Assassins have killed a judge, a court employee and two defense attorneys. At one point Saddam's codefendant, Barzan al-Tikriti, the once feared head of the Mukhabarat intelligence service, came to court in his underwear. The ex-dictator himself complained of having guards watch him take his pants down to use the toilet during recesses. Saddam's appearance last week brought a new low, with the prosecutor and defense lawyers screaming at one another, and the chief judge repeatedly hitting a red button that cut off the mike as Saddam declared himself not only president, but "commander in chief of the mujahed [holy warrior] armed forces." Finally the judge closed the hearing, threw out the press and shut down TV transmissions--all as Saddam ranted on.

Saddam's diatribes were better informed than they had been in previous court appearances. Held in solitary confinement since his capture in December 2003, Saddam has had little contact with the world beyond his cell. His American jailers strictly purged his reading material of any news about events in Iraq. But since the trial began, Saddam has been allowed to see attorneys, and on Wednesday he made the most of the information he was getting, praising the resistance while calling on Iraqis to avoid civil war. "Let the people unite and resist the invaders and their backers," he said at one point. "Don't fight among yourselves." The chief judge hit the red button and silenced the audio feed, but Saddam's speech was still audible in the courtroom. "The invaders and their supporters know they're on their certain way to being swept out, like the trash they are."

Lost in the chaos was the case itself. Saddam and his seven codefendants are on trial for the executions of 148 Shiites in the village of Dujail, in reprisal for a failed 1982 assassination attempt on Saddam as his motorcade passed by the village. Of all the accusations against Saddam, it's a relatively small one--but one where the alleged chain of responsibility is well documented. By his own statements, Saddam has tied himself to the reprisals, saying in court on March 1 that he had personally ordered the Dujail villagers tried--and their orchards razed--for an ambush that involved only 20 attackers. "Where is the crime?" Saddam declared. "[Since when] is trying a suspect accused of shooting at a head of state a crime?"

The Saddam-era trial, before the Revolutionary Court in 1984, is the heart of the prosecution's case, which maintains it was a sham. Forty-six of the defendants were "liquidated under torture" --before they were recorded as appearing at the trial. Eleven of the accused were minors, one as young as 12. A few years after the trial, Saddam's officials discovered that the kids had never been executed because of their ages. "We recommend executing them in a secret manner," reads one document. There's an arrow from that sentence to the margin, where Saddam allegedly wrote "Yes. It is preferable that they are buried by the Mukhabarat."

Saddam could well be executed soon after the Dujail case ends, without waiting for other cases against him to proceed. The defense still has a chance to make its arguments, which could extend well into the summer. But once a verdict is rendered by the five-judge panel, "if any defendant were sentenced to any penalty, no matter whether it were the death penalty or imprisonment, that penalty should be executed within 30 days of the court's verdict," chief prosecutor Jafar al Musawi told NEWSWEEK. Although there would be an automatic appeal of a death sentence to the court of cassation, that court has no backlog of cases, Musawi says, and an appeal "would only take days."

Many more cases involving Saddam could follow--if he's still alive. Already, charges are being prepared in the poison-gas attacks against Kurds in Halabja, the wider Anfal massacres and the slaughter of Shiites after an abortive uprising in 1991. But if Saddam doesn't hang for Dujail, the other 12 cases being prepared against him could, at the present rate, take more than a decade to try. Even many Iraqis unhappy with the American occupation wouldn't like that. "I think most Iraqis share the opinion that I have," said Ahmed Taha, 42, a Sunni primary-school teacher from Babylon. "Let's get done with it and execute him."

At one point in last week's trial, after Saddam quieted down and apparently agreed to address the Dujail charges, the judge pressed the green button to switch on his audio. But the defendant soon rounded on him: "If it were not for the Americans, neither you nor your fathers would have been able to bring me here." It was then that the judge declared the trial closed to the public. Shia politician Ali al Dabbagh was in the visitors' gallery. "Saddam was trying to pass messages to the insurgents and encourage them to attack," he said. "The judge had to stop this." With months more to go, Saddam's only defense is to make a mockery of the entire proceeding. So far, he's succeeding.