By Nora Boustany
Sunday, July 27, 2008; Page A15
Saddam Hussein's survival instincts were not dulled by prison, according to one Iraqi judge who faced the former president in a courtroom and recalls his cunning and rhetorical posturing.
"Are you an American or a foreign judge?" Raid Juhi Hamadi al-Saedi remembered Hussein quizzing him during a pre-trial hearing in July 2004.
The youthful judge was unfazed by the self-styled Sword of the Arabs.
"You signed my assignment order," he told him.
Then there was the moment when Hussein, playing for time and apparently angling for leverage, demanded, "What law are you using?"
"Your law. The laws you passed during your time," responded Juhi, who was confirmed to the bench a year before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Hussein. "We don't have new laws."
Thus was set in motion Hussein's year-long trial on charges of massive human rights abuses against his own people. Juhi, in his capacity as the Iraqi High Tribunal's chief investigative judge, indicted the former president and seven other men for crimes against humanity in the killing of 148 men and boys from the Shiite
For Juhi, the trial of Hussein marked a turning point in Iraqis' perception of their country's justice system. For decades, they had been terrorized by obscure, secretive courts directly linked to an absolute ruler.
"This trial," Juhi said, "laid the groundwork for a new philosophy for Iraqis -- respect of human rights, rights of suspects to a fair trial, whoever they are and regardless of the cruelty or viciousness of their crimes," he said. At the same time, he added, "no matter how high someone's position is and how much power he has at his command, one of these days he will be held accountable."
But the trial also put a spotlight on Juhi, the unassuming, diligent jurist who has been at the epicentre of post-invasion
Now 36, Juhi is in
Juhi's legal career began in 1993. After stints in the military and the Justice Ministry, he scored his first big job -- as chief investigator in
As a Shiite and a graduate of
In March 2003, U.S.-led troops invaded
He returned to Najaf on April 21, found an undamaged corner in the charred courthouse and resumed routine services with his skeleton staff. The radical de-Baathification strategy that ripped most other Iraqi institutions apart had spared them. Juhi undertook a corruption probe involving the former mayor of Najaf that ended up landing the mayor in jail for 15 years.
Then, within the space of four months, came the murders of two revered Shiite religious figures, each counted on as a voice of moderation for the Shiite majority in
In September, Juhi transferred to the criminal court in
"I can't help. I have my job, and I am not an adviser, I am a judge. And this is not my court," was his initial response. "They talked me into it. They gave me the authority. 'We need you there, and we can give you an order,' they told me."
He thought about the enemies he would make but shook off his fears. "If you are afraid, it will paralyze you," he said he told himself. "We had criticized the lack of rule of law before, and this was our opportunity to make a new justice in
His work load as the tribunal's chief investigative judge was daunting. He could focus on little else, he recalled, including his unresolved discomfort.
"As a human being, I was nervous about how to do my job right. I was born in
To hear Juhi tell it, both men were on trial, facing different expectations and verdicts.
"We were looking for international standards," Juhi noted of the preparatory phase. "For the first time, there was a conflict between domestic and international standards, and we had to work very hard." He read all the statutes connected with the case and documentation of alleged crimes from 1968 to 2003. Scores of witnesses were debriefed. "With this big load and 16 hour days, I lost all feeling."
"The first hearing was just the first step," he said, referring to the pretrial proceedings. The challenge of "how to face Saddam" loomed large. In the courtroom, Hussein put on presidential airs and exploited his legendary charisma, Juhi said, adding that he often had to chide him for being disruptive.
"Saddam was a very manipulative politician," Juhi said. "He tried to control anyone in front of him. This is the conflict between you and the accused. Who controls whom? Who would actually lead the session?"
Hussein would give long, convoluted answers, he recalled, wresting attention to his agenda. But it was also his weakness. Juhi said he counted on his committing errors as he rambled on.
Hussein did. On one occasion, after the judges had tried for an hour to determine responsibility for orders to use chemical gas, Juhi threw the recalcitrant former president a curveball.
"So, usually, the commander of a regiment can issue orders to fire a chemical weapon?"
"No! Impossible!" Hussein thundered, implicating himself. "No one can fire one bomb, no single army regiment can move without an order from me. This is my prerogative. I will never give it up!"
Juhi sees that as his master stroke. "This is my accomplishment. I will not concede it to anyone else," he said jokingly about the moment that proved the
Personally, Juhi said, he was not in favor of the death penalty, but the law required it. "It was a legal issue. The big issue inside of me when we finished was that we did it in the right way," he said.
He remains troubled by the botched handling of the last moments of Saddam's hanging.
"It is the last image, the last scene of this movie," he said. "You will remember the end all the time, not the beginning. We need the opportunity to change.