Defence team to meet Saddam, may end trial boycott
AMMAN, Feb 26: Saddam Hussein's defence team is to meet the former Iraqi leader before his trial resumes on Tuesday and may end its boycott of the hearings, lead defence counsel Khalil Dulaimi said today.
Dulaimi told Reuters in an interview in neighbouring Jordan, where the defence team is based for its own safety, that new Kurdish chief judge Raouf Abdel Rahman had lifted a ban on the lawyers meeting Saddam, allowing a meeting before the February 28 hearing which could see the defence end its boycott.
''The chief judge appears to have become more lenient after our withdrawal,'' Dulaimi said, criticising the court-appointed counsel named after the defence team walked out of the trial last month.
''Maybe he feels the appointed lawyers are illegal and damage the credibility of the trial.
''US officials and the court have agreed I meet with the president before Tuesday's session,'' said Dulaimi, who was earlier this month denied access to his client.
''This meeting will be crucial in deciding our future course of action in light of instructions we get from the president.'' Court officials were not immediately available for comment.
The four-month-old trial of Saddam and seven others for crimes against humanity has been buffeted by the killing of two defence lawyers and accusations of political bias and was thrown into confusion two months ago when the previous chief judge quit complaining of government interference.
Observers have surmised that Abdel Rahman may be under pressure to avoid similar criticism from US and Iraqi leaders that he is being too lenient in giving Saddam time to speak.
It was his efforts to silence such tirades that prompted Saddam and other defendants to be absent from court for two sessions and provoked the defence team to walk out.
Sectarian violence over the past few days has led to a curfew on Baghdad that may yet disrupt Tuesday's hearing after a two-week adjournment.
Saddam, whose Sunni-led government oppressed majority Shi'ites and ethnic Kurds for decades, could raise the present disorder in his defence; he has previously justified violence as a means of holding together Iraq's disparate communities.
At any rate, Dulaimi said, he would meet Saddam before the next court session.
Loss of contact imposed by the court after the defence walked out on January 29 in protest at the judge's actions meant Dulaimi did not know if Saddam was maintaining the hunger strike that he said in court he had begun around February 11.
But he said conciliatory signals coming from the court could end the boycott and defence demands that the judge be replaced.
''The chief judge has personally given promises to meet our demands in the event of attending the Tuesday session,'' he said.
Saddam's defence team has accused Abdel Rahman of bias and rushing to hand down a sentence and lawyers had said they would not return to court until the judge resigns.
But Dulaimi insisted they would still present a formal case against Abdel Rahman on grounds that this Kurdish background meant it was difficult for him to show impartiality.
Abdel Rahman set up organisations to help his hometown of Halabja recover from a gas attack attributed to Saddam's forces in 1988 which killed 5,000 people, including his relatives. Saddam is expected to face charges of genocide in the Halabja case.
The court also barred foreign lawyers whom the defence team, including Jordanian bar association head Saleh Armouti and US human rights lawyer Curtis Doebbler, from attending future sessions on grounds their legal papers were incomplete.
Dulaimi called it a violation of defence rights and an effort to weaken the defence, which has also lined up ''hundreds of witnesses to testify'' in the case of 148 Shi'ite men killed after an attempt to kill Saddam in the town of Dujail in 1982.