No Way To Run A Courtroom

It’s good that Saddam has finally been put on trial, although it may have been better yet if he had simply been shot. The idea that his crimes need to be “proved”–as though there were some doubt about them that could be resolved through a “trial”–is ridiculous.

But if Saddam is to be tried, some basic norms need to be observed. A court can only function if it is accepted that it has power over those who come before it. In this case, that basic premise is unclear. Many Iraqis still fear that Saddam could return to power; most of the witnesses against him do not dare to reveal their identities for fear that they will be killed by Saddam’s allies. And Saddam himself rejects the authority of the court. That’s OK, up to a point; many criminals who have no respect for the American judicial system are nevertheless tried, convicted, and on rare occasions put to death by that system. What is essential is that the tribunal assert its own authority

That’s what I find disturbing about the proceedings in Iraq. They have value in that Saddam’s horrific crimes are revealed; or, more accurately, his long-known crimes are recited in a forum where it is hard for the American media to avoid mentioning them. But the near-chaos that is allowed to prevail is inexcusable. Like this:

“In prison they used to bring men to the women’s room and ask them to bark like dogs,” [a witness] said. “My father died in prison and I was not able to see him.” He added that his father, who was 65 and had heart problems, was kept in a room about 50 yards from him.

That prompted an outburst from Saddam, who complained of his own conditions in detention. He said the court had time to listen to the witnesses’ complaints “but does anyone ask Saddam Hussein whether he was tortured? Whether he was hit?”

He urged the judge to investigate his conditions because “it is your duty as judges to investigate the crime at its scene.”

Or this:

Mohammed said he was told that Saddam asked a 15-year-old boy if he knew who he was. “He said ‘Saddam’. Then Saddam hit him in the head with an ash tray.”

The testimony drew an angry response from Saddam, who suggested that Mohammed needed psychiatric treatment and accused the court of bowing to American pressure.

“When the revolution of the heroic Iraq arrives, you will be held accountable,” Saddam warned the chief judge.

“This is an insult to the court,” Amin responded. “We are searching for the truth.”

Saddam told Amin he hoped “that you will endure my frankness.”

This is unacceptable. A court must assert its own authority within its domain. Saddam’s ability to joust with the presiding judge can only be interpreted by Iraqis as a sign of the fledgling government’s weakness.

To be sure, the court’s loose atmosphere has provided moments of comedy, like this one:

[C]ourt was preparing to adjourn for the day when the deposed dictator jumped to his feet and complained that the court was “deliberately hauling defendants before the trial when they are exhausted.”

He complained that he had no fresh clothes, and that he had been deprived of shower and exercise facilities.

“This is terrorism,” he said.

But such moments cannot make up for the weak impression that the tribunal must be making on Iraqis. The power of a court is intangible. It is always at risk of being held in contempt. I am afraid that the court that is prosecuting Saddam and his henchmen, however well-intentioned it may be, fails to understand the importance of asserting its own authority over the defendants.