BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Three years after he gave himself up to American soldiers without firing a shot, Saddam Hussein may be condemned to hang on Sunday if an Iraqi court finds him guilty of crimes against humanity.
The final act of Saddam’s year-old first trial, the verdict is the high point of a historic, U.S.-sponsored experiment in international justice intended to unite Iraqis in exorcising three decades of rule by the former president, accused of mass killing and torture to keep power over Iraq’s disparate peoples.
Yet the country’s descent toward civil war since Saddam was overthrown has blighted proceedings. Three defence lawyers were killed, the judge quit over political interference and Iraqis, who a year ago gasped in wonder to see the former strongman in court, have lapsed into distracted indifference to his fate.
Saddam, 69, and seven co-accused have been charged with crimes against humanity for the killing of 148 Shi’ite villagers after an attempt on his life in the town of Dujail in 1982.
If convicted, Saddam faces death by hanging, a prospect Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, with some disregard for judicial independence, has said cannot come soon enough.
But a death sentence — which Saddam with typical bombast has demanded in court should instead be by military firing squad — may be many months, even years, away. He is due back in court on Friday in a separate trial for genocide against Kurds in the 1980s and could face up to a dozen other cases.
Since the trial opened in the heavily fortified Baghdad courtroom in October last year, three defence lawyers have been killed in attacks that the defence team, dominated by Saddam’s fellow Sunnis, blamed on Shi’ite Muslim gunmen. The first chief judge, a Kurd, resigned in protest over government interference.
“This is a lost opportunity to promote the rule of law,” legal observer Richard Dicker from Human Rights Watch said.
Proceedings have taken place against a backdrop of growing sectarian violence.
Many people in the Shi’ite town of Dujail refused to speak to a Reuters reporter this week out of fear of reprisals and several said they were concerned Sunni insurgents might launch attacks in the area to coincide with the verdict.
Far from being a catharsis for Iraqis scarred by Saddam’s rule, many feel the trial has deepened animosities between rival communities 3-1/2 years after the U.S.-led invasion.
Some international legal experts and human rights activists have said the trial would be better held in a third country.
In the village of Awja, Saddam’s birthplace in the Sunni heartland of Salahaddin province, many asked for his release.
“If they want peace in Iraq, we demand they stop this farce trial run by Bush and his aides,” said Ahmad al-Nasiri, standing next to the village mosque, which was built by Saddam.
Saddam’s chief lawyer has warned a death sentence against the former leader, who is being held in a U.S.-run prison, would plunge Iraq into “full scale civil war.”
Security in the fortified Green Zone, where the courtroom is located, has been tightened ahead of the verdict, which U.S. and Iraqi officials close to the court say should be announced on Sunday — though a delay cannot be ruled out.
Saddam has been defiant during televised proceedings. He has staged hunger strikes, dismissed the Iraqi High Tribunal as a U.S.-orchestrated farce, and said the verdict has been rigged.
As U.S. President George W. Bush faces mounting criticism over the war, a guilty verdict announced two days ahead of tight U.S. congressional elections on Nov. 7 could reflect positively on him as a vindication of his policy to overthrow Saddam.
U.S. officials deny Washington had any say over the timing of the verdict or the court’s decisions, saying the American role was limited to logistics and security.
Throughout the Dujail case, Iraqi court officials have been consulting closely with — and, sources close to the court say, firmly guided by — American lawyers from a U.S. Embassy department known as the Regime Crimes Liaison Office.
The unit has been the conduit for $140 million in U.S. funding for the court, and the driving force in the sifting of tons of documents and advising prosecutors.
In a recent briefing, a U.S. official close to the court said the Saddam trial had more historical significance than past trials against former strongmen, including Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic. “Saddam is being tried by his own people and in his land,” the official said. “That is what this trial is about.”