Devil's Advocates: The Men who will Defend Saddam

Views on BG | March 27, 2004, Saturday // 00:00| Views: | Comments: 0

The Scotsman
By Colin Freeman

One is an international legal legend, nicknamed "the Devil's Advocate" for his formidable defence skills. The other is a back-street lawyer from Baghdad who has never set foot in a criminal court in his life.

Next week, however, they will meet to form an unlikely partnership for one of the biggest legal circuses in modern history: the war crimes trials of Saddam Hussein and his cronies.

Badie Arief, an Iraqi lawyer who represents nearly half the country's ‘Deck of Cards' most-wanted ex-regime members, flies to Paris this week to see the man he hopes will get them off the hook: Jacques Verges, the celebrated French defender of terrorist Carlos the Jackal and Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie.

The pair, who will be meeting for the first time, will discuss possible strategies for what is likely to be a tough case even for Mr Verges: how to excuse more than three decades of state-sanctioned mass murder involving up to a million people, not to mention two aggressive invasions of neighbouring countries.

But while Mr Verges will be on familiar territory - among his recent clients was Slobodan Milosevic - Mr Arief is on a near-vertical learning curve. A shambling figure who practises from cramped offices in a scruffy side street, he is by trade a civil litigator who has never defended anyone on criminal charges. All he knows about the complexities of international war crimes law, he admits, is what he has swotted from a human rights textbook he bought a few months ago.

"It is true, I have never done any kind of criminal defence work in the past, and under Saddam we had no such thing as war crimes law," said Mr Arief, who got in touch with Mr Verges on the suggestion of a French journalist whom he met last summer.

"But I hope that by linking up with Mr Verges and taking his advice and help, we can put together a proper legal defence."

Mr Arief is currently acting for about 20 of the 40-odd former regime members who have either been captured or surrendered to coalition forces, including the former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz.

His lack of experience might make him seem a strange choice for the job, but in a land where closeness to Saddam and his clan used to be more important than professional qualifications, his past life has given him impeccable credentials.

A staunch former Baathist, he claims to have advised Saddam on "sensitive" legal matters around a dozen times. "I was somebody whom Saddam used to listen to even if he didn't like what I had to say," he said.

"One family of an ex-regime member now in jail came to me for help because they remembered me that way, and word spread to the others from there. I am also one of the few people here willing to help them."

His clients' sheer notoriety has already given him a taste of what level of fame may be possible in the future. Since the unexpected capture of Saddam last December, when Mr Arief announced he was willing to represent him for free, he has been in constant demand for newspaper and TV interviews worldwide.

Yet, even defending the former dictator in the court of public opinion has had its trepidations. Shiite extremists have shoved death threats through his office letter box, while a cryptic figure claiming to be from Saddam's resistance movement paid him a visit recently to offer "congratulations from the leader".

So far, though, he has been able to make only limited progress in preparing his clients' cases, as they languish in a United States-run prison near Baghdad airport. Coalition officials have prevented him even visiting any of them yet, citing a clause in the Geneva Convention that permits certain "high value detainees" to be kept incommunicado from lawyers and families for reasons of national security. "They will get access to lawyers as and when they are charged," said a coalition spokesman.

Nonetheless, the prisoners' families, many of whom are now in hiding, retain faith in Mr Arief. Among those who visited his offices last week was the 17-year-old eldest son of Kamal Mustafa Abdallah Sultan al-Tikriti, secretary of the Republican Guard, Saddam's son-in-law.

Number ten on the list of 55, he allegedly features on a video widely circulated in markets in Baghdad today in which he beats and then shoots dead three prisoners during the Shiite uprising in 1991. But his son Ziad said: "I have seen the video in the markets and also the original. The original was just edited to make it look as if it was my father doing the shooting - I don't know if he did or not, but I'm sure he didn't.

"He surrendered in May for what the Americans said would just be questioning but we haven't seen him since. Now Mr Arief is our only hope."

Mr Arief's tactics in defending his clients are likely to rely on claims that in invading Iran and Kuwait, and brutally suppressing Iraq's Kurdish and Shia uprisings, both Saddam and his underlings were simply acting in the interests of national security.

"The invasion of Iran and the uprisings were threats to the state of Iraq itself," he said. "Saddam had a right to respond to these, in the same way as the Americans would if they were invaded by Russia, using any means that he felt were necessary. Those underneath him were just following his orders."

Mr Verges, meanwhile, a former commander in the French resistance, is likely to focus on the tacit involvement of Western powers, in particular the US, in many of Saddam's acts of aggression.

"Western countries encouraged the war against Iran," he said in a recent interview. "Western countries were present in Iraq through diplomatic delegations. They weren't blind.

"In the course of a trial, the fundamental element will be: ‘You treat me like a pariah, but I was your friend. What we did, we did together. I fired the bullet, but you're the one who gave me the gun - you even pointed out the enemy.'"

Once asked why he agrees to defend his more notorious clients, Mr Verges replied: "I think that a lawyer has to defend everybody. What would you think of a doctor who said that he would care for people with the flu, but not with syphilis? Then he's not a doctor."

If he does eventually represent Saddam, Mr Verges plans to subpoena numerous world leaders and statesmen to ask them why they chose to turn a blind eye to the former Iraqi leader's crimes for so long.

Among them is likely to be the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who visited Iraq 20 years ago to voice America's support despite its use of chemical weapons in the war with Iran.

Before going to Paris, Mr Arief was due to spend this weekend in Amman, Jordan, where many of his clients' families now live as fugitives after fleeing Iraq last April.

"Before I go to Paris I will be seeing at least eight families including possibly Saddam's daughters," he said. "It is not clear yet whether they want me to represent them, but I will be able to pass any messages on to Mr Verges if needs be."

Whatever the outcome of his visit to Amman, the former Iraqi president's family might well have other reasons for seeking help elsewhere. Mr Verges is already 79, while Mr Arief is 64.

With Saddam's trial alone expected to take up to five years to complete, it remains open to question as to whether the two will be deemed match-fit for such a legal marathon.

Speaking up for the accused: 'This is about treating everybody equally before the law'

THROUGHOUT history, lawyers have gained a degree of notoriety by defending clients many might consider indefensible.

While many of those who appeared at the Nuremberg trials at the end of the Second World War did so out of a belief that everyone is entitled to a defence, no matter how dire their crimes, Alfred Seidl was reported to have defended Rudolph Hess with complete conviction.

Mr Seidl continued to represent Adolf Hitler's deputy throughout his imprisonment at Spandau, becoming Hess's spokesman and leading continuous failed attempts to free the Nazi.

He continued practising as a lawyer and eventually entered politics, joining the Christian Social Union and rising to the post of Bavarian minister of the interior in the late 1970s. He died in 1993, aged 82.

Michael Caplin, a British lawyer, came in for criticism by human rights demonstrators for representing the former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet in his battle to avoid extradition to Spain after he was arrested in the UK.

Mr Caplin led the legal team which halted the removal of Gen Pinochet from his hospital bed in London to face charges over human rights abuses committed when he was the leader of the South American country.

The Scots-based Italian Giovanni di Stefano claims to represent the M25 killer Kenneth Noye, the timeshare conman John "Goldfinger" Palmer, and the recently freed property tycoon Nicholas van Hoogstraten.

He is reportedly happy to be known as a fan of Mussolini and a former business associate of Arkan, the Serbian mass murderer. He has spoken up in defence of Hitler, says he has met Osama bin Laden and would like to represent Saddam Hussein.

Andrew McCooey took on perhaps the hardest job in British law when he began representing the convicted Moors Murderer, Myra Hindley.

Mr McCooey fought for Hindley's freedom for seven years before passing on the job to another law firm. During that time he lost several clients and had to deal with constant media attention.

"The phones just ring off their hooks from the moment I get back to the office to the time I leave," he said.

"Acting for high-profile killers can be profitable work, but it's not that profitable because you spend so much time dealing with the press - and you can't get legal aid for that."

However, he said there was an important point of principle at stake: "This is about treating everybody equally before the law.

"If this was somebody else - somebody who hadn't been cast as such an ogre, for so long - most people would be absolutely outraged that she was still in prison."

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