A Slain Saddam Trial Lawyer's Final Interview

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The day before he was gunned down just blocks from his home in Baghdad, Adil al-Zubeidi, a member of Saddam Hussein's legal defense team, had sat calmly sipping a Seven-Up and explaining why he wasn't afraid of death. It was his faith, he said, that made it possible for him to risk his life to do his job: ensuring that even members of Saddam's brutal regime got a fair trial. Despite the danger of assassination—a second member of the defense team was killed last month—he put his fate in the hands of God. "I believe now we are sitting together," he told TIME in the cafeteria of the Iraqi Bar Association on Monday, "but tomorrow maybe we cannot sit together because of the death of one of us."

Al-Zubeidi was killed Tuesday, driving near his home on the main street of al-Adil neighborhood in western Baghdad. Fellow defense attorney Thamer Hamoud al Khuzaie had been riding with al-Zubeidi and was wounded when four gunmen emerged from a gray Opel and riddled their red Proton sedan with bullets. Police and U.S. troops arrived at the scene and took the injured al-Khuzaie to an American hospital in Baghdad.

Both men had spent two hours talking to TIME on Monday, explaining their reasons for joining the team of lawyers representing eight members of the former regime in the trial over the 1982 Dujail executions. (The two were representing Saddam's brother, Barzan al Tikriti, and the former Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan.) The shooting comes just over two weeks after a fellow defense attorney, Sadoon al Janabi, was kidnapped and assassinated following the first televised broadcast of Saddam's trial.

Neither claimed to have any loyalty to Saddam or his lieutenants; their loyalty, they said, was to the law. "We are professionals," said al-Zubeidi, explaining that he had never been a member of the Baath party. "We are not related to a political party." Indeed, al-Zubeidi, a youthful 65-year-old with black hair graying at the temples and wire-rimmed glasses that bent forward off his nose, had a history as a Shiite radical—he had spent over 14 months in prison during the '60s and '70s for membership of a religious opposition group. But al-Zubeidi's appearance in the October 19 trial could have lead to his being singled out for assassination. According to his own account, when he introduced himself to Saddam, al-Zubeidi said that despite the fact that he was a Shiite from Babylon, he was still defending him. That's when Saddam replied with his signature phrase, "Afia," or "Well done," leading some onlookers in the courtroom to think al-Zubeidi had been too deferential to the deposed dictator.

Laith Kubba, spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, speculated that the perpetrators may have been Baathists trying to derail the trial and putting pressure on the government to move it out of the country. But the speculation among the lawyers, since the Janabi killing and also today, has been that the killers were Shiite militias enacting revenge on those defending Saddam Hussein.

Revenge killings are commonplace on the streets of Baghdad today, and just a few words can make someone a target. Despite the dangers, the lawyers representing Saddam and his lieutenants have refused offers of protection from the U.S. and Iraqi governments, believing it would compromise their independence. Instead, the Iraqi Bar Association wants 15 personal bodyguards for each of the lawyers—of their own choosing—and assurances from the government that they will find and punish the assassins, and, until that time, has called for the defense team to boycott the trial. It's too late for al-Zubeidi; his execution, without a trial, came today.