Government interference with the independence of the judges in the trial of Saddam Hussein and seven co-defendants threatens the fairness of the proceedings, Human Rights Watch said today. The trial is scheduled to resume in Baghdad on Sunday.
“The demand for Presiding Judge Rizgar Amin’s dismissal, which contributed to his resignation, was nothing less than an attack on judicial independence,” said Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch.
Parliamentarians from the ruling party have demanded Judge Amin’s dismissal, while senior Iraqi government officials publicly criticized Judge Amin's handling of the trial and chided him for being too lenient with Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, at other times the same government officials insisted that the tribunal was independent of political pressure.
Iraq’s De-Ba`athification Commission challenged the appointment of Judge Saeed al-Hammashi as successor to Judge Amin. The Commission claimed Judge al-Hammashi was ineligible to sit on the court due to his alleged former membership in the Ba`ath Party. Judge al-Hammashi was subsequently transferred from the trial chamber.
“The removal of Judge al-Hammashi from the trial created the appearance of a court that is continually subjected to political interference,” said Dicker. “Sitting judges cannot be shuffled around as though they were deck chairs on the Titanic.”
The statute of the Iraqi High Tribunal in article 33 prohibits anyone who was a member of the Ba`ath Party from working with the court. Due to a de facto suspension in the application of this provision, former Ba`ath Party members have been appointed to the court. In a briefing paper released in October 2005, Human Rights Watch criticized article 33 as interfering with the independence of judges, because it made several judges susceptible to dismissal at any time without regard to their actual past conduct.
In July 2005, the De-Ba`athification Commission sought the dismissal of more than 20 judges and other court personnel due to alleged former membership in the Ba`ath Party. Their dismissal was blocked only by the intervention of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja`afari.
Unconfirmed reports that Judge al-Hammashi was transferred off the Saddam Hussein trial as a political compromise between the De-Ba`athification Commission, the Prime Minister's Office and the Iraqi High Tribunal, raise serious concerns about the court's ability to safeguard its independence. The De-Ba`athification Commission's past interventions forced the court into similar maneuvers to prevent the dismissal of other judges.
The 1985 U.N. Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary ensure that judges shall decide matters “without any restrictions, improper influences, inducements, pressures, threats or interferences, direct or indirect, from any quarter or for any reason.” There also shall not be any inappropriate or unwarranted interference with the judicial process.
“The resignation of Judge Amin and the transfer of Judge al-Hammashi mean that two of the five judges who have heard the witness testimony are now off the case,” Dicker said. “It will be difficult for the new judges to impartially evaluate the testimony they missed, damaging the integrity of the trial.”
Saddam Hussein and seven other former Iraqi officials have been on trial since October 19 for crimes that took place in the town of al-Dujail in 1982. Government security forces killed more than 140 individuals from al-Dujail in retaliation for an assassination attempt on Saddam Hussein as his motorcade passed through the town, 50 miles north of Baghdad.