Prosecuting Saddam

Monday, October 9, 2006
Larry Ferrell wore a sidearm and flak jacket as he prepared take off in a Little Bird helicopter outside the Green Zone in Baghdad earlier this year. The federal prosecutor spent seven months in Baghdad working on the trial of Saddam Hussein.

In his trial for crimes against humanity, Saddam Hussein is being afforded something he never gave his Iraqi subjects: due process.

Larry Ferrell, assistant federal prosecutor for the Eastern District of Missouri, spent seven months in Baghdad working on the trial with the Regime Crimes Liaison Office. He returned to Cape Girardeau from this voluntary assignment in August.

"I've been doing this for a long time, but this work brought back to me just how important rule of law is. You get to see the crucial role an independent and fair judicial system plays in a democratic society," he said.

Ferrell came back with his suitcase heavy with souvenirs, including an American flag flown over the U.S. embassy, rugs spun by Middle Eastern craftsmen and hundreds of pictures.

But Ferrell said the work itself and the courageous people he met were his greatest rewards.

"Every person, from the investigators to the judges to the prosecutors, literally are putting their lives on the line in an effort to see that justice is done and the rule of law is respected in Iraq," he said. "It's a very humbling experience to work with these people who risk their lives and the lives of their families."

Ferrell helped work on two of the six cases slated to go before the Iraqi High Tribunal. He stressed that his work was strictly in an advisory role. He worked hand in hand with the Iraqi prosecutors who try the cases and the Iraqi judges who play an active role in collecting evidence.

He also said in his interview with the Southeast Missourian there were many subjects he would not speak about. These included troop morale, regularity of insurgent attacks and the demeanor of Hussein himself. Ferrell said he restricted his comments in the interest of the safety of those still in the country and so as not to affect an ongoing case.

Though admitting he was nervous about releasing most of the details of his duties for the RCLO, Ferrell spoke passionately about the specifics of the cases against former Baathist leaders and Saddam Hussein.

The cases, he said, were on a scale difficult for most to imagine. In 1982 after an assassination attempt against Hussein when his motorcade traveled through the village of Dujail just North of Baghdad, the dictator responded with swift vengeance.

"We heard testimony that hundreds of people were rounded up and whole families placed into internment camps," he said. "The village was destroyed; about 200 Dujailies were arrested and interrogated. Only 148 survived the interrogation. The 148 who survived were then tried in one case before the chief judge of the Revolutionary Command Council Court, Alwad al-Bandar. They were all represented by one attorney. They were all convicted and all sentenced to hang and so they hung." Ferrell added that some of these victims were children as young as 11. The trial against Hussein and seven other defendants including al-Bandar lasted just under nine months, and a verdict is now pending.

Ferrell also worked on the case against the Iraqi special courts system, which amounted to a bloody kangaroo court for dissidents Hussein saw fit to get rid of.

For example, in 1992, 40 of Baghdad's leading merchants were arrested, tried and hanged the following day through the special courts system. Hussein initiated the brutal reprisals to defer some of the blame for economic hardships after the U.N. placed sanctions on Iraq.

"If you found yourself on trial in one of the special courts, I'd say your chances were between slim and none," Ferrell said.

He added that there is a strong historical precedent for prosecuting judges who preside over these types of courts. "If you look at the history of Germany before World War II, the same situation existed. They created special courts and the judges of these special courts and those behind their creation were later prosecuted at Nuremburg," Ferrell said. Hussein and all of the defendants will be eligible for the death penalty by hanging if found guilty. Former federal prosecutor Gen. Ramsey Clark, who is serving as part of Hussein's defense council, said the hanging of Hussein would trigger a "bloodbath" in already unstable Iraq.

Ferrell responded to this by saying, "I think the Iraqi people have waited long enough for justice in this case."

Ferrell, who began his career in the Cape Girardeau County prosecutor's office in 1980 prior to taking the federal job, has seen his fair share of the inside of a courtroom. But much of the IHT procedure was new to him.

The IHT court follows the rules of civil law proceedings. He described this method, which is common in Europe, as a "collective search for the truth." That means the judges, prosecution and defense all work together to collect evidence prior to trial. The judges do much of the questioning during trial.

Ferrell said this method, which differs from American and British law, can sometimes look disorderly. Television clips of Hussein confronting his accusers or defense lawyers leaving the courtroom in protest gave the impression of a trial run wild.

"Oftentimes because of the media coverage you just see the one instance of commotion in a full day of trial," said Ferrell. "What you don't see is the other testimony that took place, some of it quite riveting. Of course, it's typically not as orderly as our court system. But that's also due to the unique nature of these types of proceedings … it's part of what happens in trying formerly powerful people who are used to wielding extraordinary power."

Other impediments include the language difference. "There were thousands of tons of documents seized in Iraq throughout the years and virtually all of them are in Arabic," Ferrell said.

"So the act of indexing and interpreting all these documents is just a massive undertaking. There are a lot of people working day and night on this."

Despite his best efforts, Ferrell couldn't help much in the language department. "I learned a few Arabic phrases, just some of the common greetings," he said. "Mostly I would say, 'mahkama,' and point. That means court." He says his work for the court was a good distraction. He lived in an 8-by-20-foot trailer in the annex of the U.S. Embassy compound. His quarters had basic amenities like running water and air-conditioning, but little else.

"There wasn't much to do. That's the one thing that is conducive to putting in more time in the office," he said. The workday was 12 to 16 hours, six days per week.

His trailer was protected by sandbags and 12-foot-high blast-resistant concrete walls. Ferrell declined to comment on most questions of safety inside the "Green Zone," but said mortar fire landing inside and close to his living quarters was a regular event.

"It wasn't unusual to hear explosions in downtown Baghdad and feel the effects," he said. "I felt as safe as you can feel in a war zone … but absolutely, you don't forget that you're in a war zone."

Ferrell said he rarely left the "Green Zone," but when he did so it was by a small helicopter known as a "little bird" or by armored convoy.

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