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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Christopher Reid
Regime Crimes Liaison

December 21, 2005

Christopher Reid
Thanks for having me on Ask the White House. I have been working on human rights issues in Iraq since March 2004. I taught human rights to corrections officers in Baghdad, and then joined the Regime Crimes Liaison Office in the fall of 2004. I worked on the Anfal case in northern Iraq, including following up on evidence we found at mass graves in Al Hatra, and then I returned to Baghdad to act as Deputy Regime Crimes Liaison and then Regime Crimes Liaison.

The Iraqi people long for freedom and democracy, and understand the importance of the rule of law in a free and democratic Iraq. I am pleased to have a chance to answer your questions about the trial of Saddam Hussein, and to talk about the work of the judges, prosecutors, lawyers, witnesses and other participants in the process, who are risking their lives to bring justice to Iraq.

I see that we have already received some great questions, so let's get started.

tyler, from ohio writes:
why is suddam Hussien on trial

Christopher Reid
In Iraq, they do not focus their cases on individuals. Instead, they organize their investigations and trials by event. Unlike in the United States, in Iraq they do not try "little fish" and work their way up the chain.

The tribunal has investigated and is investigating Saddam Hussein for involvement in a number of crimes against humanity, war crimes and possible genocide. The events that they are focusing on as an initial matter are the Al Dujayl case, which is the subject of the current trial. The complainants have made the following allegations.

In 1983, Saddam visited the town of Al Dujayl, and while he was driving through the town, a group of men allegedly shot at his convoy. Instead of investigating the shooting and punishing the men who were involved, the regime punished the whole town. They collected hundreds of men women and children and held them for years without charges. They were subject to repeated torture, 148 were executed without due process, others were arrested and disappeared and the agriculture and infrastructure of the town was destroyed. The defendants are charged with crimes against humanity because this constituted a systematic and widespread attack against the civilian population.

The Al Dujayl case is not extraordinary because of its scale - the regime allegedly killed 100-180,000 Kurds as part of the Anfal case, which is likely to be the next case on the court's docket. The case is extraordinary because the terror and oppression in Al Dujayl represents the universal experience of the Iraqi people, no matter what religion or ethnic group. When I speak with Iraqis about the Al Dujayl case, they can always name a family member - usually a brother, sister, father or mother -- who suffered similar mistreatment by the former regime.

The short answer to your question, though, is that Saddam is on trial because the Iraqi people have chosen to embrace the rule of law, and to discard the methods of the former regime. They are showing themselves and the world that in the new Iraq, even those accused with horrible atrocities will get their day in court and will be treated fairly.

Bedingfield, from New Braunfels, TX writes:
How can a trial and the final outcome that is so important to the success of this fledgling democracy i IRAQ continue to be delayed and stalled? I believe it harms our efforts by instilling fear in those who have been repressed and it emboldens those who seek to regain power. Finally, how can a former US Attorney General defend a homicidal dictatorship like Saddam Hussein's of IRAQ without abandoning his core values? He is an embarrassment to this great nation.

Christopher Reid
The delays are frustrating, and the Iraqi people are impatient to see justice done. The process of investigating the Al Dujayl case (and the other cases) has moved more quickly than a similar investigation in a U.S. court would, and far more quickly than similar cases before international tribunals. The chief trial judge is trying to strike a balance here. He knows that the defense has announced a strategy of delay and disruption and he needs to deal with that and keep the evidence coming in. On the other hand, he needs to be fair and appear to be fair, so I expect that at least early in the process he is going to err on the side of letting the defendants speak, and, when necessary, taking breaks. I hope, like you do, that when the court comes back in January, they will pick up the pace.

I can't speak for Ramsey Clark. I think that competent defense counsel is very important to the process, and I especially respect the Iraqi attorneys who are helping assure that there is a fair trial. I do not think that delay and obstruction are appropriate defense tactics, however.

Nic, from PRC writes:
Sir, How long is it estimated that the trial will last?

Christopher Reid
Nic, since this is the first trial that the tribunal has ever conducted, it is hard to say. We are seeing the complaining witnesses. Next will come eyewitnesses, then witnesses suggested by the prosecution, then there will be a break while the court specifies the charges based on the evidence thus far, and then witnesses suggested by the defense. This is not going to take as long as the trials in the Hague. But I think it will be at least a couple more months.

Joel, from Superior, WI writes:
Mr. Reid, Do you think that Saddam Hussein's repeated outbursts in the courtroom will affect the trial, and if so, do you think that it is a tactic being used by the defense to keep control of the trial?

Christopher Reid
Joel, I definitely think that the defense is trying to delay and obstruct. We have heard some very compelling and harrowing testimony about torture and other atrocities, and the defendants seem to be trying to distract from the evidence through these outbursts. The judge needs to keep control of the courtroom, while making sure that he is fair to the defense. He is an experienced judge, and sometimes experienced judges give some leeway early on, and then tighten things up.

Jim, from Mississippi writes:
During the course of Saddam trial there seem to be no real physical evidence or even proof of him being present at the time of the murders that he is on trial for.My question to you Mr. Reid is what is the chances of him being found guilty based almost soley on a heresay case? And does the fact that the United States accused him of having weapons of mass destruction in which no weapons were ever recover play apart in making it hard to prove to the court and the world that this to could be another mistake or wrong intelligent

information made by the United States?

Christopher Reid
Thanks for the question, Jim. Because there is a panel of judges, rather than a jury, the judges do not exclude as much evidence as judges in an American court might. They weigh the evidence based on the reliability of the source, whether the person was an eyewitness, etc. But we have not just heard hearsay evidence. We have heard testimony from actual victims of being tortured and abused, of relatives being killed, and of the agriculture in the town being destroyed.

I think what you are wondering is how the court will link all of the crimes alleged to high-level regime members. In a crimes against humanity case, one of the ways this is done is through the theory of command responsibility. If crimes against humanity have been committed, and I think the evidence on this has been compelling, then Saddam, Barzan and Taha can be found liable if they ordered criminal acts, found out about criminal acts of their subordinates and did not punish them or take corrective action, or should have known. I expect that in this case there will be evidence of all three. And Barzan has already stated in open court that his subordinates could not act without his knowledge. In addition, witnesses have placed several of the defendants at the scene of the crime.

Cheryl, from Boston writes:
It's being reported that Saddam is claiming that he has been beaten while in prison. Is that true?

Christopher Reid
I saw Saddam make that claim. I think that it is a reaction to all of the testimony during the trial thus far about the torture of men, women and children and other atrocities by the former regime.

I can tell you that the defendants are always watched by many people, and the people assigned to keep them in custody have always been extremely professional whenever I have observed them.

I have heard the defendants complain constantly about the food they get in the courthouse (it is the same food that the judges, prosecutors and defense counsel get -- and it is what I eat, too), and about the type of cigarettes they are supplied. I know that the soldiers who guard them have it rougher than they do. Until today, I never heard Saddam make these allegations.

During an earlier trial day we heard heartbreaking testimony of witnesses in the case about torture and abuse of men women and children. That same day Barzan claimed he was mistreated because he only go six cigarettes a day and he did not like the brand. I thought the juxtaposition of the testimony and Barzan's complaints was quite shocking, and I think that the defendants probably realized that. I absolutely think that Saddam has made up the allegations and used them to ambush the judge and distract from the testimony. But ANY allegation, no matter how suspect, will be investigated by the Iraqi and Coalition authorities.

The defendants have had many opportunities to report any allegations of beatings or mistreatment to the tribunal or to the coalition, or to their attorneys. I think the timing of the allegations says a lot about their veracity.

Pat, from Phoenix writes:
In talking with Jim L. on PBS the other day, I thought G. W. Bush said "Saddam killed hundreds on thousands of people" Please tell me where the president got that info because I would like to read up on it if possible.

Christopher Reid
Pat, it is hard to come up with an exact number of people killed by the former regime, but hundreds of thousands of people is probably a conservative number.

Let me give you an example from one campaign of the Iraqi army and security organizations called the Anfal campaign. The Kurds claim that up to 180,000 Kurds disappeared during that campaign, in which villagers were rounded up for mass execution and buried in trenches all around Iraq, and during which many villages were subject to bombardment and poison gas attacks.

When Kurdish officials were negotiating with the former regime some years later, they say that Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan Al Majid or "Chemical Ali", complained to them that in the Anfal campaign there could not have been more than 100,000 Kurds killed. That campaign lasted less than a year.

During Saddam's regime there were a number of such events, including the war with Iran, the invasion of Kuwait, the suppression of the 1991 uprising all around Iraq, and the oppression of the Marsh Arabs. The Saddam regime has, with good reason, been dubbed "The Republic of Fear."

During Saddam's regime an Iraqi could disappear just for insulting Saddam in a private conversation or voting against him in one of the referenda where Saddam's name was the only name on the numbered ballots and the only choice was yes.

Daniel, from Chicago, Illinois writes:
I understand that the Iraqis, not the United States militarily or otherwise, are prosecuting Hussein for crimes against humanity, which may include such crimes against non-Iraqis as well. We hear from some in America that most Iraqis wish we'd just go away, but how likely is it that most Iraqis don't want Hussein to stand such trial, and how likely would such trial be amid al-Qaeda and pro-Hussein insurgents if the United States or similar power didn't provide backup security?

Christopher Reid
It is very important to the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government that the trials take place before a national court of Iraq before Iraqi judges. The Iraqis chose a national court with international assistance over an international tribunal. This was the right choice. The trials need to bring justice to the victims, tell the story of the atrocities, help Iraq come to terms with its past, and promote the rule of law in Iraq.

Under international law, a national court is preferable to an international tribunal, so long as the national court is willing and able to conduct the trials. An international court might feel to the Iraqi people as the world punishing Iraq, rather than like victims seeking justice from the perpetrators. And an international court would not be as accessible to the Iraqi people, and would not be able to help Iraq deal with its past or promote the rule of law. Right now the United States is providing the bulk of international assistance, but the trials are clearly an Iraqi process.

The Iraqi people are riveted by the trial. Over 60% say they watched at least a few hours of the previous trial days. I think that the Iraqi people know that they need international support for this trial, but they also hope that over time, they will need less and less outside support. I think that their attitude toward international (including U.S.) support makes good sense.

Dan, from UK writes:
How can you counter Saddam's stance that he does not recognise the authority of a court set up by an occupying force who entered his country illegally?

Christopher Reid
The tribunal statute was recently amended and endorsed by the democratically-elected government of Iraq. The country has had several elections, and approved a constitution. The court will have to deal with the legitimacy argument when they write their final judgment, but I think the court is on pretty solid ground in terms of legitimacy. I also expect that the defense is going to do its best to take the focus off of the evidence that keeps piling up -- and raising and re-raising the legitimacy argument will be one of the ways they try to do this.

Al, from Virginia Beach, VA writes:
Why is the trial Judge allowing Saddam and his half brother turn the trial into a circus with oubursts and disruptions?

Christopher Reid
The judge has a difficult job. Under Iraqi law, after each witness, the judge has to ask the defendants if they have any questions, and the defendants have taken the opportunity to make a number of outbursts. The important thing is that real evidence is coming in, and even during the outbursts, the defendants have made a number of damaging admissions. I think the judge's patience is not endless, and he will get stricter with them over time.

Dean, from Hardwick writes:
Why has suddains trail put on hold so long why can the court not sapina him in

Christopher Reid
I think, as I have previously said, that the investigations of the various cases have moved pretty quickly, especially when compared to similar proceedings in the Hague. There have been delays related to security issues, and because defense counsel wanted more time to prepare. There will be another recess when the court finishes with the complaining witnesses, but I expect the pace to pick up in January.

John, from California writes:
Why isn't Saddam charged with more crimes than just the few killings he's on trial for? Does Saddam get do basically control the courtroom and say what he wants. Shouldn't he be in handcuffs and behind a wall or something?

Christopher Reid
This is just the first of a number of cases for which Saddam and other members of the former regime will face charges. The Tribunal wanted the court to be as much like a traditional Iraqi court as possible, and designed the dock with that in mind. I think the judge understands how this trial is setting a standard for Iraq, and he is doing his best not to treat the defendants the way the former regime treated regular Iraqis. But I do think that he might lose his patience at some point. If the defendants won't behave, he has the option of letting them watch a live feed from a cell.

Matt, from Detroit writes:
Is the court system that is trying Saddam Hussein, the same court system that was in place prior to the war? Why is Hussein not being tried in the Hague?

Christopher Reid
Matt, good question. Iraq actually had a pretty sophisticated criminal justice system along the civil law model. The problem is that the former regime bypassed, or exerted improper influence on the court system. The tribunal is a national court of Iraq, operating under Iraqi law. The tribunal statute includes additional procedural and other safeguards to assure that the trials meet international standards. Where the tribunal statute is silent, the tribunal looks to Iraqi criminal procedure.

Troy, from Memphis, TN writes:
Is there any thought of moving the trial to another place, to prevent any more terrorism such as murders and death threats that are happening to those involved?

Christopher Reid
Iraq is a very dangerous place, and has been for some time. Violence against people who want to promote freedom, democracy and the rule of law is not new. But the tribunal judges understand that the tribunal has an obligation to offer protection to all participants, including defense counsel and witnesses. It is important to the Iraqi people that the trial takes place in Iraq, and I am not aware of any country that has invited the tribunal to conduct these trials there. The participants in this process, witnesses, judges, prosecutors and defense counsel, deserve our admiration for what they are doing to promote freedom and the rule of law in Iraq under very difficult circumstances.

Amy, from Medford, Oregon writes:
Saddam Hussein has displayed some outrageous antics in court, that in my opinion have disrupted it. Why hasn't he being put in contempt of court?

Christopher Reid
Saddam has been disruptive. Two trial days ago, he yelled at the court and said he would not appear the next day. I think he realized that he had gone way too far, and, as his attorney has stated, he appeared in a closed session of the court the next day and apologized to the judge. But he asked to be excused from the next day of trial and was. Today he appeared, and seemed to behave for a while, but we saw some outbursts later in the day. The judge has a number of options, including having Saddam watch the trial from his cell. I do think that the judge will not put up with these outbursts too long. But he is in charge of the courtroom, he is an experienced judge, and whatever he does he will be careful to make sure that he is being as fair to the defendants as possible.

Even during these outbursts something extraordinary is going on. Regular Iraqis are standing within feet of Saddam and accusing him. That was something that would have been unthinkable in the past, and I can tell you that the Iraqi people are riveted by it.

Tina, from Lancaster, CA writes:
Hello Mr. Reid: How would it effect the United States, and Iraq, if the court decides that there is not sufficient evidence against Saddam Hussein andor the co-defendants and they go free?

Thank you for your time.

Christopher Reid
I know that the tribunal is committed to justice, and if there is not sufficient evidence against one of the defendants in one of the cases, the court will acquit. But I also think that the evidence has been pretty compelling, and only the complaining witnesses have testified so far. And I should note that several of the defendants are likely to face charges in other cases, so their acquittal in this case would not mean that they would go free. They would still have to face the other charges.

One of the reasons that it is so important that the trials are televised, is so the Iraqi people can view the process and the evidence and come to their own conclusions about the fairness of the proceedings. The tribunal is being very methodical and very fair in its treatment of the defendants.

Mathew, from Dunedin, FL writes:
How is working on this case, with the entire world watching you, different from others you have tried? How much more difficult is it?

Christopher Reid
The main difference is that I am not prosecuting the case or participating in the case as an attorney. I am running an office that offers support to the tribunal, including training, security, and logistics, and there are attorneys and investigators in my office who assist the investigators, prosecutors and judges.

For the most part, the world has been focused on the judges, the prosecutors, defense counsel, witnesses and the defendants, and that is as it should be. You can see from watching the trial coverage that this is an Iraqi process, with international assistance. Working with Iraqis who are so brave and so committed to bringing democracy, human rights and the rule of law to their country has been an amazing experience. So has working with Americans, and members of the coalition who are willing to leave their families, come to a dangerous place and do grueling work to help the Iraqi people.

Cliff, from Brimfield Ohio writes:
Mr. Reid: Do you see Saddam Husseins trail coming to and end soon? As far as the verdict goes that is up to the jury. But many Americans seem not to be very interested in this trial as a whole. Only when a grand stand event occurs does it make the paper or news in most cases.Thank You and have a very Merry Christmas.

Christopher Reid
I think the first trial will take at least a few more months. I do hope that the media will focus more on the testimony of the witnesses and less on the antics. I think the coverage has gotten better. But I was very disappointed on the first day when the press focused on the outbursts more than the testimony.

Here is a story they missed: One witness said that the men, women and children were beaten daily, and the children were not getting enough to eat. He named several guards who were particularly cruel. But then he named a guard who was kind to the women, and brought milk to the children. He said that the men asked this guard to continue to torture the men, so that he would not be fired and could continue to help the women and children. The Iraqi audience did not miss this, but I think many Americans did. It was just one of many heartbreaking stories told by the witnesses in this trial.

Sharon, from Princeton, NJ writes:
What do the people of Iraq think about the trial? Do they believe Sadaam is getting a fair trial? Is opinion split along ethnic lines?

Christopher Reid
Most Iraqis suffered under the former regime, no matter what their religious or ethnic group, and many Iraqis are very impatient to see justice done. Iraqis are glued to the television during trial days, and most can relate to the testimony of the people of Al Dujayl. Certainly though, there are differences among Iraqis. You see small groups in Saddam's hometown protesting the trial. But having an open, transparent and fair process should help Iraq come to terms with its past, and should reassure the Iraqi people that there will be justice in the new Iraq.

Janet, from California writes:
Why was the U.S. affraid to hold this trial in an international court? It would have been trusted more. This looks like a kangaroo court,a mock trial. It looks very suspect on TV. I can not believe this is going over well in Iraq. This is a PR disaster don't you think?

Christopher Reid
Iraq chose a national court with international assistance. For the reasons I gave to Daniel from Chicago, I think this was the right choice. If anything, the Iraqi people think that the judge is being TOO patient with Saddam. But strong evidence is being presented, and the Iraqi people are seeing gavel-to-gavel coverage, rather than just the dramatic moments one sees in the US. The court is going to be fair and just, and in the end the Iraqi people will not just be satisfied with the process, they will be proud of it.

Christopher Reid
It looks like Janet got the last question. Those were great questions and they came fast and furious. I hope that you will watch as much of the trials as you can, and focus on the evidence, rather than the antics. The Iraqi people have suffered for a long time, and they really do long for democracy, freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. They proved it with their participation in the elections, and I think they will prove it through these trials.

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