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When it resumes on Monday, the court trying Saddam Hussein and seven other defendants will face a key challenge in balancing the defendants’ right to a lawyer of their choosing with preserving order in the trial, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.

“The Iraqi High Tribunal is at a crossroads,” said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program. “The court is fully entitled to discipline lawyers for misconduct. But if the court takes the drastic step of dismissing defendants’ chosen attorneys and imposes new lawyers who the defendants reject, the judges are taking an enormous risk with the fairness of the trial.”

The chosen lawyers for at least four defendants walked out of the trial on January 29, after one of them was ejected from the courtroom by the chief judge for disorderly behavior. The lawyers – who represented former President Saddam Hussein, his half-brother Barzan al-Tikriti and two other senior members of the former government – have declared a boycott of the court. They were immediately replaced by court appointed lawyers from the Tribunal’s Defense Office, but the defendants have rejected these lawyers and refuse to instruct them.

In the seven-page briefing paper released today, Human Rights Watch sets out the fair trial principles relevant to these developments at the tribunal. The paper explains the defendants’ right to lawyers of their own choosing, the limits that can be placed on this right, and answers the question whether the court can impose lawyers against the will of the defendants. The briefing paper concludes that the court should dismiss a defendant’s chosen counsel only as a last resort, and must take steps to ensure that any court-imposed defense lawyers effectively defend their clients.

“The boycott of defense lawyers must be handled in a way that demonstrates both the tribunal’s full commitment to fair trial rights and its control of the proceedings,” said Dicker. “To minimize the risks involved, the court must make sure the lawyers it appoints mount a vigorous defense.”

Since October 19, 2005, Saddam Hussein and seven other former Iraqi officials have been on the trial for crimes that took place in the town of al-Dujail in 1982. Government security forces allegedly killed more than 140 individuals from al-Dujail in retaliation for an assassination attempt on Saddam Hussein as his motorcade passed through the town, 60 kilometers north of Baghdad.

The briefing paper is available at:

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