The trial of Saddam Hussein and seven co-defendants, which resumed in a fortified courtroom in Baghdad's Green Zone this week following a 40-day adjournment, has raised a few eyebrows. Among other criticisms, the Iraqi special court and the United States are being criticized for a hasty approach and weak preparation.
The critics includes Sherif Bassiouni, law professor and president of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University in Chicago, who finds fault with court hearings that are being run in an "all American way." Bassiouni, who contributed to the first project for the Iraqi special court and helped bring Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to trial, asks: How can one convince Iraqis that "an Iraqi judge paid by the Americans, residing under the protection of the occupying force" is an independent judge?
Other voices point at other real and perceived flaws.
Sure, the trial leaves a lot to be desired, but the critics are missing a more important overriding theme: that for the first time in the modern history of the Middle East, a ruler is being held responsible for his deeds. This step is a huge gain by itself and should not be overlooked or taken for granted. The potential for tremendous regional impact should outweigh the flaws in the process.
It is especially important that the court has begun with a single, specific case -- the executions of 148 Shiite Muslims citizens from the village of Doujail. They were massacred in 1982, following a futile attempt by a group within the village to assassinate Hussein as his motorcade passed nearby.
Hussein, it should be noted, was not alone in his brutality or depravity. In that same year, Syrian dictator Hafez Al Assad massacred about 20,000 citizens in Hamma, razing the city to the ground with tank and artillery fire following a reported assassination attempt on his life by hard-line Sunni Muslims. The late dictator's brother and other officials who played vital roles in the massacre are still at large.
In the summer of 1988, neighboring Iran, for its part, put thousands of political prisoners to death after a desperate cease-fire agreement was reached to end the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. During those killing months, a three-judge panel retried thousands of inmates already serving sentences. The hearings lasted a few minutes for each prisoner. Those inmates who stood by their opposition to the regime were ordered immediately hanged. According to Amnesty International, between 2,000 and 3,000 were executed. In a letter to Imam Khomeiny, then Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, then the latter's heir apparent, quoted the number to be either 2,800 or 3,800. Opposition counts go as high as 30,000, of which a list of 3,208 names has so far been produced.
Many of the perpetrators are still very much in circulation. Jaafar Nayyeri, chairman of the three-judge panel, is currently deputy chief justice of the Iranian Supreme Court. A second influential judge, Ebrahim Raissi, is the head of the State Inspectorate Office. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, head of the executive at the time, is currently the supreme ruler.
Which brings matters back to Hussein's trial. To be sure, all is not proceeding well. Two of the Iraqi defense lawyers have been killed. There was even talk of transferring the trial out of Iraq, which would certainly be a step in the direction of weakening the trial's message.
Hussein's lawyer, Khalil Dulaimi, accused Iran of having planned the lawyer assassinations. If proved correct, the accusation only highlights the necessity of going forward with the trial, while also protecting those involved.
The trial, as well as the investigation into the forces trying to derail it, should proceed. More important than the trial itself is its message: Negligent rulers in charge today could and should be held accountable one day. The imperative for justice goes far beyond Iraqi frontiers. The message of this trial is that it's an early step of a vital process, part of the irreversible democratization of the whole region.
Nooredin Abedian taught in Iranian higher-education institutions before settling in France as a political refugee in 1981. He writes for a variety of publications on Iranian politics and issues concerning human rights.