Behind the Saddam Judge's Ouster

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The Iraqi government blindsided its U.S. legal advisers when it announced it was removing the lead judge in Saddam Hussein's second trial Tuesday night. Officials in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office had become increasingly impatient with Judge Abdullah al-Amiri in what they perceived as his lenient and overly deferential treatment of Saddam in court. Explaining the move, Iraqi officials cited Al-Amiri's indulging Saddam's lengthy political speeches during three-week prosecution of the Anfal case, smiling at him, calling him "Mr. President" and recently telling him, "You were not a dictator."

U.S. advisers to the court in the Regime Crimes Liaison Office (RCLO) were not informed of the change and had recently been advocating to leave the judge in place, despite growing concerns about his performance. The U.S. officials wanted to instead offer him more training to help him focus the proceedings of the court. The U.S. embassy in Baghdad would not comment on the specific discussions surrounding the court. "As we have said before," said spokesman Lou Fintor, "this is an Iraqi process."

The Iraqi Prime Minister does not have the ability to change judges on his own. The move was initiated by a letter from the president of the Iraqi High Tribunal (IHT), equivalent to the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The letter was written after the Prime Minister's office explained its case against the judge and urged the IHT president to take action, said Basam Ridha, adviser to the Prime Minister. It was voted on and approved by the Council of Ministers on Tuesday. The Iraqi President is expected to certify the transfer in the coming day. "The Maliki government chose the decisive route," says Ridha. "We felt that the defense attorneys and Saddam Hussein kind of ruled the court."

When the deputy judge stepped in on Wednesday morning, the defense walked out, after reading a statement attacking the move. "The decision to sack the judge at the orders of the government shows that this trial lacks the standards of a fair trial," the defense said. The judge later ejected Saddam from the court when he refused to sit down and stop speaking out of turn. The removed judge will likely be transferred to a court that meets outside the fortified Green Zone — where there will be no guarantee he will have the same level of security around him he has now, according to a senior Iraqi official. Traveling around Baghdad is extremely dangerous for any participants in the trial, especially those like Al-Amiri, whose face has been on television every day the trial was in session over the past three weeks. A number of lawyers and the families of witnesses involved in the proceedings against Saddam have been assassinated over the past 10 months.