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Little evidence links Saddam to 1982 crackdown

Sunday, February 5, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- After four months and 26 witnesses, prosecutors in the Saddam Hussein trial have offered little credible testimony directly linking the former leader to the killings and torture for which he's charged.

But legal experts familiar with the case say the best may be yet to come -- documents allegedly tying Saddam to the crackdown that followed an assassination attempt against him 23 years ago in Dujail, a mainly Shiite town north of Baghdad.

Without compelling evidence, a guilty verdict against Saddam may not provide closure for victims of Saddam's atrocities. But the experts caution that the documents -- which include hand written notes, interrogation orders and death sentences handed down by the Revolutionary Court -- may not alone be enough to win a conviction.

What is needed, they said, is to establish a clear chain of command that would show Saddam would have known what happened to the more than 140 Shiites killed and the others tortured after the 1982 attempt on the former ruler's life in Dujail, north of Baghdad.

The evidence to date -- mostly testimony from people who were arrested and allegedly tortured -- has pointed to a brutal crackdown -- but has not showed that Saddam played a direct role. Saddam and the seven co-defendants, charged in the Dujail killings, could face death by hanging if convicted.

But the chief prosecutor maintains that he has the evidence to win a conviction that will be accepted not only by those Iraqis who are eager to see Saddam hang but also international legal institutions that have been skeptical of an Iraqi trial from the start.

Prosecutor Jaafar al-Mousawi said that the case's 800-page dossier includes documents showing Saddam ordered interrogations, executions and in some cases clemency.

"We have many such documents that we plan to present later in the trial," he said.

However, defense lawyers, as well as some foreign legal organizations monitoring the trial, say about a third of the documents are illegible after so many years.

Trial testimony so far has linked Saddam's half brother and co-defendant, Barzan Ibrahim, to the torture of Dujail residents in the Baghdad headquarters of Mukhabarat, or intelligence agency, that he led at the time. Some witnesses testified that Ibrahim had personally tortured them.

"Barzan is practically the top defendant in this case," said al-Mousawi.

Saddam's former deputy, Taha Yassin Ramadan, also has been implicated by witnesses in the reprisal destruction of Dujail fruit orchards shortly after the attempt on Saddam's life.

Marieka Wierda, a legal expert with the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice, said Saddam's defense could argue that his security forces were not acting on his orders when they detained and tortured hundreds.

"But the prosecution could counter that by showing that torture was a widespread practice at the time and Saddam could not have possibly not known about it," Wierda said.

Both she and Bhuta from Human Rights Watch believe the best case scenario for the prosecution would be to produce a senior member of Saddam's regime to testify against the former ruler and others in exchange for immunity.

Saadoun Shaker, who was interior minister at the time, may be one possibility. His name was mentioned by a Saddam defense lawyer as a prosecution witness. Al-Mousawi, the prosecutor, was believed to have been referring to Shaker when he told the AP last week that a senior official of the former regime would be among the witnesses.

Al-Mousawi refused to identify the witness and played down his significance.

In theory, Shaker's job should have given him an insight into internal security matters and authority over the police force. However, testimony given in court suggested that police were not involved in the Dujail crackdown, with only Mukhabarat -- intelligence -- agents, Baath militiamen and elite army units loyal to the regime.

The absence so far of a "smoking gun" incriminating Saddam has not escaped his defense lawyers.

"It's all hearsay," said attorney Khamis al-Obeidi. "All witnesses were children in 1982, some as young as 6. Their testimonies are clearly rehearsed and don't incriminate President Saddam," he told the AP.

For example, a video filmed the day of the assassination attempt and played during the trial's first session Oct. 19 only showed the former president addressing a cheering crowd at Dujail and ordering aides to detain and interrogate four suspects.

In a disposition videotaped Oct. 23, Wadah Ismael al-Sheik, who led the interrogations department of the Mukhabarat at the time, said he had not heard anything directly from Saddam about the Dujail incident.

However, he also said that Saddam decorated Mukhabarat officers, including himself, who worked on the case. The witness died of cancer shortly after the recording.

But witnesses maintained that Saddam, as head of state, bore the ultimate responsibility.

"When a lot of people are jailed and tortured, who takes that decision?" a witness told the court Dec. 6 after recounting her own torture and imprisonment. "Was he (Saddam) not the ruler while thousands were jailed and tortured?" asked another witness the following day.

Saddam, who has often launched into his own defense, varied his tactics in response to allegations by the witnesses that he was ultimately responsible for what happened.

"If Saddam was found out to have laid a hand on a single Iraqi, then everything he (a witness) says is correct," Saddam told the court Dec. 5. "Was it not the right of Saddam Hussein to have his agencies pursue those who fired at him?"


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