'He's in the Highest Spirits'

As a Jordanian civil attorney, Issam Ghazzawi has dabbled in some controversial pro bono work. But none compares with his present client, Saddam Hussein. Along with serving as one of his chiefs of counsel, Ghazzawi is also the official spokesman for the committee to defend the ousted Iraqi dictator, who was referred for trial yesterday for the 1982 killings of 150 men and youths from Dujail, a town 35 miles north of Baghdad. The case is expected to be the first of more than a dozen charges of crimes against humanity levied against Saddam.

No date has yet been set for the trial, but Ghazzawi--who says he is not getting paid for his time--and a legion of international lawyers have long been preparing for the moment. Why are they defending him? Ghazzawi says it's because of the belief in the principle that everyone deserves a fair trial. But there's no doubt that the pending case against Saddam has also given the team a platform to criticize what they describe as the "illegality" of the Iraq war. Even before the first official charge was brought against Saddam on Sunday, they were criticizing the tribunal's makeup and procedures. Earlier today, the group responded to the Dujail charges with a statement describing the announcement as "irresponsible and another serious violation of the rights of fair trial." "Lawyers who are willing to represent the President have been denied the right to meet with him and must find out about the charges via the media," they said. "This clearly reflects the illegitimacy of the process of the Iraqi Special Tribunal."

NEWSWEEK's Joshua E. S. Phillips recently spoke to Ghazzawi in Amman, Jordan, about the challenges of the upcoming defense and the former dictator's new world as an inmate. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Who would want to defend Saddam Hussein?

Issam Ghazzawi: Every honest lawyer who believes in humanity and human rights should defend Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein is the president of the country that was illegally invaded by the United States under the Bush administration under false pretext and without authorization by the United Nations--it was not in self-defense. When you feel justice is not done, it's your duty as a human being and as a lawyer to defend justice.

How did you get involved in this case?

When the invasion of Iraq took place, we in the Jordanian [Bar] Association formed some kind of committee to defend Iraq. It was named "The Defense of Iraqi People." When the president was arrested and detained by the Americans, we thought must defend the president, the Iraqi people, and the leadership. Our weapon is law, nothing else. In the beginning we were only seven, after that the smaller committee [grew] to 20-25. But ... you could say there are 2,500 lawyers all over the world willing to volunteer if asked.

How many American lawyers are involved?

As volunteers we have maybe 20; as active members we have two.

What are your main challenges in representing him?

There are many. They say they have 8 million documents or papers that they're basing their accusation on--they've been with the prosecutors for one and half years. We've seen no paper whatsoever. It's our sacred right to see the papers and how they indict the president for each crime or misdemeanor. We asked to meet our client many times. They gave us three ad hoc meetings only, with the supervision of an officer all the time. The last time there was a two-hour meeting with him and two supervising officers in the same room. Of course, everything was taped and recorded so the privacy between the client and his lawyer is not there, so he won't tell us many things. We asked many times to bring a team of doctors to check on the health of the president, but we are not permitted to do so. We are afraid he might be killed in the prison, or given some kind of drug, or some kind of infection...they might decide to get rid of him before the trial.

You expect Saddam to be killed?

It's a possibility because the Americans don't want many things to be shown in public. They don't want a hearing. If they have a hearing, there will be many high-ranking officials from the United States who would be summoned for testimony. If they have a fair trial they'll lose. If they have a monkey trial they'll be subjected to the ridicule of the whole world. I don't think it's in their benefit to have a fair, transparent trial of the president. So they might assassinate him in his cell by poisoning him or giving him drugs. They are not short of tricks--they can do it.

Didn't one of his lawyers request a change of venue?

It's a preference, not a request because we don't accept the idea of judging the president in a court of law because of [Saddam's] immunity, and the illegality of the invasion, which was declared by the United Nations.

Couldn't it be argued that his actions were so reprehensible that it nullifies any immunity he held?

Who decides that? I don't know any person that has the authority to decide that.

How many charges do you expect him to face?

[The prosecutors] are saying 18, then 14, then they said 12 charges. We don't know anything about them. It's very difficult to prepare a defense on this vague idea of the charges.

What [else] do you think he'll be charged with?

God only knows. They say he can be charged for 500 crimes, but 12 crimes are enough to execute him. Do you believe that they're giving him a sentence before accusing him? That's what's happening in Iraq.

Based on the charges you've heard about, how are you preparing your defense?

We are really in the dark, expecting some charges, believing that some of the accusations might be charges. We're doing our best to prepare an argument about the illegality of the invasion, the lies of the U.S. government and its officials for the pretext of the war, and the [U.S.] crimes against humanity with the killing [by some estimates] of 100,000 [Iraqi] civilians, demolishing cities, killing people indiscriminately.

Do you feel there are any conditions by which there could be a fair tribunal that would both adequately represent your client and install values that pertain to the rule of law?

It's very difficult to imagine. The nearest thing to a fair trial is a tribunal formed by the United Nations that would be transparent.

Then why not walk away and say, "We're going to protest by not involving ourselves in this process"?

Maybe we'll take this step. We might be compelled to do it.

How would you answer those who say that since Saddam is responsible for some of the gravest human violations of the 20th century, he deserves to be executed?

First of all, these are not substantiated accusations. If they can be unbiasedly [investigated] in a court of law, he'll be declared innocent of all charges. For example, with [the mass killing of] Kurds, and Shiites in the south after the American war of 1991, they rebelled against their country in a time of war. That's high treason. The Iraqi government and military at that time was ordered not to shoot at anybody and to go back to [their] camps. Even the Americans permitted the Iraqi government using helicopters to control the rebellion. And most of the people killed there were Iraqi soldiers and not civilians. If they exhumed the graves ... [they'd find] identification tags in their clothes.

What about these mass graves that were exhumed after the U.S. invasion? There were a lot of civilian bodies found.

Yes, when you have a lot of people killed in an area--a lot of soldiers killed in an area--with a temperature reaching more than 50 Celsius [122 Fahrenheit] you don't have the time or ability to bury these people except in mass graves.

What arrangements does Saddam's Iraqi lawyer make to meet him?

We must submit a request through the [Iraqi] Bar Association. They send it via courier to the Green Zone [who] sends it to the general [responsible] and when the general agrees it's possible they make contact with the lawyer and then tell him to stand by for a meeting within a week. They don't even give him the time. They tell him, "It might happen tomorrow, it might happen after a week. Be prepared." They pick him up in a car with shaded glass, and take him to the appointment somewhere. He can't see where he's going. The procedure itself is illogical. It's not a court of law. It's a joke--it's a monkey court. But we have to deal with it.

Has Saddam ever complained of any abuse?

He was physically abused during the first two days of his arrest. His leg was broken ... they hit him, punched him, and kicked him. After that they didn't treat him badly. They put him in jail, incommunicado. [The U.S. Army] gave him food and some kind of health care. We don't know anything else. They [also] kept interrogating him without the presence of a lawyer for months.

What sorts of questions is he asked during interrogation?

I know what he was not interrogated about. He was not interrogated about chemical, germ, or nuclear weapons. None whatsoever! The Americans know it's a lie from the beginning. He was not asked a single question about these subjects.

Did he fear that he was going to be executed when he was first captured?

No...he's in the highest sprits and morale you can imagine. He believes that the Americans will be kicked out of Iraq by the resistance because the Iraqi people were occupied and the occupier has the right to defend his country.

What is his daily life as a detainee like?

Now he's treated well. He gets regular meals--the same meals the generals get. They don't bother him at all in his cell. He goes for a half an hour walk in the morning and evening down a corridor in the camp.

How else does he spend his time?

Imagine how anyone can spend their time without any communications whatsoever in solitary confinement? He prays, he reads some books of law provided by the Red Cross, and he reads Qur'an. That's it. He sometimes writes poetry...

Has he requested anything while in detention? No, he hasn't requested anything because you don't request anything from your enemy.

There were reports that Saddam likes American Doritos and misses Ronald Reagan. They're Mexican [Doritos], not American [ laughter ]. I don't know about the reality of this.

What about the jail photographs taken of him in his underwear?

Even the interim government said it was immoral and illegal to do so. The American government said it was illegal, and [they'll] investigate it. I believe the Americans released these photos to discourage the resistance. It's my personal opinion, of course. But it backfired on them and the resistance became more furious because they felt that the president was insulted and they must get revenge. And that's what's happening.

You're representing such a high profile leader whom many people hate ...

... and whom many people love and admire.

Is Saddam feeling optimistic about the trial?

Not [about] the trial. He doesn't think about it--really. But he's very optimistic that the people of Iraq will kick the Americans out. It's very costly for the Americans to stay, it means money and lives.

Does he expect to return to power?

He didn't declare anything to us about returning as president.

What are you going to do after this trial?

I won't be involved in any kind of law after this case. It's the pinnacle of one's career. You do not need to go further. So, I'll retire immediately.