Illustration by Christy Karacas
Dr. Najeeb Al-Nuaimi was a lead lawyer on Saddam Hussein’s final legal defense team. Al-Nuaimi first came to prominence defending Guantánamo Bay inmates, and recently this renowned human rights activist of the Arab world sat down to talk to us.
ice: How do you feel now that Saddam has been executed?
Dr. Najeeb Al-Nuaimi: I have to say I was expecting it.
Was Saddam expecting it?
He said, “If death is my destiny, why should I change it?” Unfortunately, Saddam did not want an international trial. He said, “I was born here and I will die here.” He did not want to be Milosevic. He wanted to be in Iraq despite the fact that he knew that it was an occupiers’ trial. His country is under occupation and the court was set up by Americans.
And was he lucid when you would speak with him?
Yes. In his mind he was clear and aware of everything. He believed that judgment on him had already been made before the trial started and that the trial itself was just a play.
Did he believe that if he were executed, the majority of Iraqis would see him as a martyr? Did he think that it would feed the insurgency?
First of all, you’re using the wrong term. It is not an insurgency. We call it a resistance. Baathist, Islamic, whichever… It is a resistance.
Saddam’s appearance and his political words gave courage to Arab nationalists around the world. It showed that this guy is not afraid of anything. He believed that his country should be liberated from the forces that are in it now. We all believe that—even me. Iraq is under occupation. We should not kid ourselves that we are free, that America has left, or that there are free elections. This is not true. Iraq is an occupied state.
Why did you agree to represent Saddam when he was also clearly guilty of massive human rights violations? Were you defending Saddam the era or Saddam the accused?
I was contacted by his family and some colleagues, and I hesitated for about two or three months before accepting the job. I am known as a human rights activist, which, of course, doesn’t logically fit with me defending Saddam. But after seeing the photos being published in Britain with him in his underwear, I saw that his dignity and humanity had been insulted. I felt that this man had to have a good lawyer. So I defended Saddam the prisoner, not Saddam the era. Saddam was imprisoned by an occupier and he had the full right to have me as a lawyer.
Was your life in danger because of your decision to defend Saddam?
Five of my colleagues died in very harsh, terrible ways. So as a defender of Saddam, I was also treated like a prisoner in Iraq. During the trial they took us from the plane at the airport straight into a helicopter. It was for our own security, but it was not freedom. We followed an American system and chain of command. There was no freedom as a lawyer to come and go and they constantly told me, “You risk being killed,” and that they would not take responsibility.
Iraq is not really free and independent when lawyers must be flown in and out, then detained in a villa with 60 other lawyers inside using three bedrooms and two toilets. We got very frustrated. After one week we were all going mad.
Can we discuss the trial itself?
Saddam was defeated militarily but not constitutionally. If you throw him out in an act of war, he still has his status as president. He is absolutely protected as a war prisoner by the Geneva Convention, and Geneva is very clear about this. It explains the tools and the means of how you deal with a president, a war commander, his troops, and his weapons. But the laws of Geneva don’t work for America, because if they used the normal laws Saddam would have been acquitted. So they thought, “What shall we do?” and they decided to make it up themselves. After spending millions of dollars, Mr. Paul Bremer [director of reconstruction and humanitarian assistance for postwar Iraq] came up with the idea of establishing a special court called the Central Criminal Court of Iraq.
Is that an unprecedented act?
Well, even Milosevic was given the full right to defend himself—the right to a fair trial. The difference is that his trial was under international criminal law. In Iraq, Bremer established what he called “Court Number 1.” The Americans always say that we should abandon all special courts in the Third World—that there should be no military courts—but all that debate was thrown out by establishing this court. This special court was brought in by Americans and designed by Americans.
What do you have to say about the way the trial proceedings were conducted?
This was a trial of ethnicity, not an international trial. It should have been impartial and the co-defendants and co-accusers should have had the right and time to speak for themselves. My team should have been allowed to speak freely and openly, but every time we stood up the judges would say, “OK, OK, later, later you can talk.” It didn’t give us a good feeling or faith in the system.
I feel that if I’d had a proper, independent, impartial court, I could have received an acquittal and he would not have been sentenced to death. This guy should have been able to exercise his normal constitutional rights.
What was his mental health like before he died?
The last time I saw Saddam was in July, before the courts stopped us from meeting with him toward the end. He was normal—taking into account that he was taking medication because he had heart problems. He was not a young guy, keep in mind. Plus he had been detained for over three years without understanding why, and formerly he had been the president of a state for over 30 years. We asked him if he wanted to see anyone and he said, “I want to see my family and my daughter, but my family is not the problem. My problems are Iraq’s problems. I am not a criminal being detained who needs to talk to his family.”
Was he allowed any indulgences inside the prison?
All he wanted—and received because of our pestering the judge—was a radio to listen to the BBC and Cohiba cigars.
What are your thoughts on the handling of Saddam’s execution and the pro-Muqtada Al-Sadr chanting as he was hung?
It reflected and revealed two things: How much hate was inside the heart of the Mahdi Army, and the hatred and division that exists between the political parties of today’s Iraq. It revealed that his whole trial was based on ethnic attitudes and showed that this was just a political trial—not a factual trial.
You have stated publicly that the trial was a sham. Was it even worth defending him?
Yes, it was. We always have to do something. To keep lying is dangerous. I can’t stay blind when I know there is a miscarriage being carried out.
What do you think of Iraq without Saddam?
I think with the death of Saddam an era has been closed.
And what hopes do you have for Iraq now?
Well, there are a lot of predictions. There is talk of a huge massacre coming on the 12th of June—a massacre between Shia, Americans, everybody. It has nothing to do with Saddam anymore. Saddam is part of history now. You Americans opened up a Pandora’s box and you don’t understand what will come out of it. It will be no feeling and no regret—just killing.
You should write a book about your experience with Saddam’s trial.
I am corresponding with an agent in the US. I still need an editor. If you read it I think you will cry.
Did Saddam ever express any regrets to you?
I once asked, him, “Why, Saddam? Why? Why invade Kuwait?” And he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Everybody makes mistakes. I have made mistakes, but I think I did something for my country.”
Did he have his cigars till the end?
Yes, he had his Cohibas until the end.
INTERVIEWED BY TANYA HABJOUQA