Iraqi officials were trying to persuade the chief judge in the trial of Saddam Hussein not to resign on Sunday after he announced he would quit in protest at government interference with the court.
“The government has sent a delegation to see him because they are afraid of the damage this will do to the credibility of the tribunal,” one of the prosecutors in the trial, Mumkidh Taklif al-Fatlawi, told Reuters.
The killings of two defense lawyers have already prompted questions over the U.S.-backed decision to hold the trial in the midst of bitter sectarian and ethnic conflict.
A source close to Kurdish judge Rizgar Amin himself told Reuters that tribunal officials were trying to talk him out of his decision but he was reluctant to stay on because Shiite leaders had criticized him for being “soft” on Saddam in court.
“He tendered his resignation to the court a few days ago but the court rejected it. Now talks are under way to convince him to go back on his decision,” he said on Saturday. “He’s under a lot of pressure, the whole court is under political pressure.
“I am not sure if he will go back on his decision,” said the source, who is familiar with Amin’s thinking. “He had complaints from the government that he was being too soft in dealing with Saddam. They want things to go faster.”
The last straw, the source said, was a letter criticizing his handling of the trial from radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr, whose movement is part of the ruling Islamist bloc.
The judge planned to explain his reasons for resigning after chairing the next hearing on Jan. 24, the source said.
Government and tribunal spokesmen were not available.
Technically the departure of the presiding magistrate on the five-judge panel can be overcome by appointing a substitute. But even if he stays, the complaints about government interference from Amin, the much-televised face of the court, may do lasting damage to the credibility of the U.S.-sponsored High Tribunal.
Only one other judge has allowed his face to be shown on television -- and only Amin has let his name be published.
The killing of two defense lawyers had already highlighted problems with the process amid a virtual civil war between Saddam’s fellow minority Sunni Arabs and the U.S.-sponsored government, run by Shiite Muslims and ethnic Kurds intent on quickly hanging a man they say massacred their peoples.
International human rights lawyers have urged U.S. officials and the new Iraqi government to send Saddam and his aides to an international court abroad while the defense has branded the proceedings “victor’s justice” imposed under U.S. occupation.
“The defense team has long warned about the dangers of political pressure that has undermined the court’s independence and integrity,” Saddam’s chief attorney, Khalil Dulaimi, said, praising the “high moral authority” of the presiding judge. “We expect the political pressures to mount,” he told Reuters.
Miranda Sissons, who has observed the trial for the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice, said that if Amin quit it would signal that political pressure on the tribunal has had an effect.”
In the first trial, which has sat for seven days since Oct. 19 and is due to resume on Jan. 24, Saddam and seven others are charged with crimes against humanity in the deaths of over 140 Shiite men after an assassination attempt on Saddam in 1982.
After hearings last month, some observers criticized Amin for allowing Saddam and his co-defendants to speak at length, making allegations, including of maltreatment at American hands.
The judge, whose dry wit and courteous manner have been features of the proceedings so far, rejected the criticism.
Foreign experts studying complaints of fraud in Iraq’s Dec. 15 parliamentary election will release their final report on Jan. 19, the head of the team said on Sunday.
Minority Sunni Arab and secular parties have complained of vote-rigging in the poll which was dominated by the ruling Shiite Islamist Alliance.
The release of the findings would pave the way for the Iraqi Election Commission to publish uncertified final results of the poll, which it said on Saturday it hoped to do within a week.