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Hussein trial unfair, seriously flawed, rights group says

BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi court that sentenced Saddam Hussein to hang this month was guilty of shortcomings so serious that a fair trial for the former president was all but impossible, Human Rights Watch said today.

There were so many procedural flaws that the verdict could be viewed only as unsound, the international watchdog group said in a 97-page report on the trial, which it said was among the most important since Nuremberg after World War II.

It lambasted Iraqi government officials for making statements it said had undermined the independence of the court.

"The tribunal squandered an important opportunity to deliver credible justice to the people of Iraq. And its imposition of the death penalty after an unfair trial is indefensible," said Nehal Bhuta, author of the report that was based on dozens of interviews with judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers.

Hussein and seven others went on trial a year ago for crimes against humanity in the killing and torture of hundreds of people from Dujail after gunmen tried to kill Hussein there.

The United States opposed an international tribunal, despite concerns Iraq's violence could stand in the way of justice.

The death penalty imposed on Hussein and two codefendants this month came as little surprise to observers of the chaotic, stop-start trial that was marred by the murder of three defense counselors and the resignation of the first chief judge.

"The attitude of the Cabinet towards the court and the trial is one of a consumer who pays money for a product," one judge told Human Rights Watch. "The government treats the court like a factory."

The report said the judiciary lacked the expertise for such a complex trial and urged the government to let experienced international jurists take part directly in future trials.

It said the court, which sat for 40 days, heard 70 witnesses and accumulated 1,000 pages of documents, failed to give defense lawyers important documents in advance, lost track of paperwork, and kept no written transcript.

Statements of 29 prosecution witnesses were read into the record without them being available for cross-examination.

The report expressed concern over the high turnover of judges on the five-member panel during the trial. Three left the bench and a fourth was frequently absent because of ill health.

It described the behavior of second chief judge Raouf Abdel Rahman in court as erratic for repeatedly losing his temper, insulting defendants, and making unexplained decisions, in one case refusing to let a defense lawyer question his own witness.

Relations between Rahman and defense counsel, who frequently boycotted proceedings, were "poisoned," it said.

Court-appointed counsel stepped in to defend the accused, but the lawyers had inadequate training in international law and in July had to work in an office with no computers, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch, based in New York, accepted defense complaints they were not given enough security, although the court says they refused it. The report also said the defense counsel seemed more concerned in making political statements.

"At stake is not only justice for hundreds of thousands of victims but, as at Nuremberg, the historical record itself," it said. "Executing [Hussein] while other trials are ongoing will also deprive many thousands of victims of their day in court."

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