BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Gunmen in Baghdad shot dead a brother-in-law of the new judge trying Saddam Hussein and badly wounded the man’s wife and son, police sources said on Friday.
One said judge Mohammed al-Ureybi’s 10-year-old nephew also died and his sister was in a critical condition after the family was sprayed with bullets on Thursday as they prepared to drive off from their home along with a truck laden with possessions.
They had decided to flee the mostly Sunni Ghazaliya district of west Baghdad, the police source said, after Ureybi, a Shi’ite lawyer, was appointed to chair the televised genocide trial last week following the sacking of his predecessor by the government.
Court officials were not immediately available for comment.
Three defence lawyers working for Saddam and his co-accused have been killed over the past year but, if the attack is linked to the judge’s work, it could be the first such bloodshed aimed at intimidating state officials of the U.S.-sponsored court.
One Iraqi lawyer familiar with court procedure said the tribunal’s appeals panel would probably now have to review whether Ureybi could continue to preside and might conclude that he would have to step down on the grounds that the killings of his relatives might prejudice him against the defendants. He was appointed after the government sacked his predecessor for telling Saddam the former president was “not a dictator”.
International legal rights groups and the defence team said the Shi’ite-led government’s action, along with the previous attacks on Sunni defence lawyers that colleagues blame on Shi’ite militias, poses questions over whether Saddam can have a fair trial in a country on the brink of sectarian civil war.
Ghazaliya has seen considerable sectarian violence before.
As Ureybi’s relatives were set to move off from their home in their car, followed by a pickup truck full of furniture and other goods, gunmen opened fire, killing Kadhem Abdul Hussein and hitting his wife and his son Karrar, a police source said.
Ureybi is from the majority Shi’ite community now dominant in Iraq after years of oppression under Saddam’s mostly Sunni rule. He has taken a firm line with the accused in the month-old trial for genocide against the Kurds and has ejected Saddam from court in each of the three sessions over which he has presided.
Tribunal judges, like leading Iraqi politicians, live under tight security. Militants have frequently targeted the relatives of prominent figures, seeking easier targets because the family members enjoy considerably less — if any — protection.
Ureybi, originally from the southern city of Amara but trained in Baghdad, was little known among leading lawyers before appearing at the head of the five-man bench nine days ago, a day after Abdullah al-Amiri was fired by the government.
The three defence lawyers, all of them Sunni Arabs, killed were acting in Saddam’s first trial, for crimes against humanity over the deaths of 148 Shi’ite men from Dujail.
A verdict in that case is expected in the next few weeks, despite arguments from the defence, reiterated in a statement on Thursday, that the trial was a farce.
Saddam, 69, faces hanging if convicted but no execution can take place until after an appeals process that could take years because of a need to schedule about a dozen trials for the former president over the same period.
In other violence, police said two officers were killed on Friday in clashes in Baghdad’s violent, southern Dora district, gunmen killed three Iraqi soldiers near the northern oil city of Kirkuk and one man was killed by a bomb in central Baghdad.
The Iraqi military said it captured 60 suspected Sunni insurgents in a bloodless start to what it called a joint Iraqi and U.S. operation to flush militants out of the violent province of Diyala, around Baquba, northeast of Baghdad. Among those arrested was a Sunni tribal leader and former brigadier in Saddam’s army who is accused of organising the “ethnic cleansing” of Shi’ites from the town of Khan Bani Sad.
U.S. commanders describe Diyala as the “perfect storm” because of a mix of Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish communities.