The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Scene from court (3)

December 13, 2005

So I missed him.

The old man. The fallen lion, the devil on earth. The one who looms over this whole post-invasion mess, whose name I write in articles a dozen times a day.

The day I attended Saddam’s trial, he decided not to. Of course there will be other days. The trial is moving incredibly slowly and this is only the first of what people are saying are going to be a dozen trials.

The three days of testimony only saw about nine witnesses in the first phase of the trial. The defense and the prosecution still have to call their people and at the rate it’s been moving lately, it should last at least another year.

The view from the journalists gallery is not particularly good either. We sit behind the defendants, seeing mostly just their keffiya-clad backs of their heads. On TV there were zoom in shots of Saddam’s angry and defiant faces (who should play him in the movie, Sean Connery? Pierce Brosnan? How did such a fat mustachioed tin pot dictator turn into such a gaunt, haunting, even commanding figure?)

So on the third day of trial, I arrived with the other journalists, transported through the massive green zone in a curtained bus so that we couldn’t see our destination. We passed through endless security, and went through a total of two full body X-ray machines—a massive cylinder that spins around you as you stand with your arms upraised.

No notebooks, no pens, they give that to you. You can’t bring anything in with you.

And then we just sat in the downstairs journalist room, in front of a bank of computers and telephones and we waited, and wondered why the trial was starting so late.

Slowly the information trickled down—there was a delay. A bit later, we found out that “one” of the defendants was refusing to come upstairs. Hmmm, who could that be? We called in the information to our respective desks and then got back to the business of… gossiping about other journalists.

I was off to the side with the Reuters and AP people, in our own little wire journalist section. My two colleagues were like a pair of old biddies, as they talked about who was dating who, who was a totally overrated writer, whose marriage was on the rocks…

We took breaks periodically to listen to the guy from Fox News filing every five minutes in his authoritative television voice: “Heavy wrangling continues between Saddam’s lawyers and the court.” We looked at each other, how does he known that? He’s just making it up.

It was actually a much more pleasant way to spend the morning then slaving away at the desk. I actually felt part of small club, as I complained about the difficult lot of the hardworking, underpaid wire reporter with these two other grizzled veterans of the trade and even added gossip of my own whenever the conversation turned to someone who had passed through Cairo.

As we took our positions in the gallery, the Reuters guy noted how BBC superstar John Simpson settled himself in the corner right up against the glass. Apparently just as Saddam walks into the courtroom, he looks briefly at the press gallery and John wanted to be there to catch his look.

“It will be a whole chapter in his next book, ‘how I stared down Saddam,’” predicted the Reuters guy.

But Saddam never showed. Though a friend of mine, a photographer, did have that experience. He sat in a little room photographing the trial with remote control cameras. At one point, the memory card of one of his cameras was full, so he went into the courtroom during a break to replace it.

Together with his state department minder and a ladder, he scuttled into the courtroom, climbed up and replaced the card as the deliberations continued. Then he noticed a silence, and turned around to see the judge, the prosecutors, the eight defendants including the man himself, staring at him. He said he was locked into Saddam’s gaze for what seemed like minutes before the state department guy holding the ladder hissed: Lets. Get. Out. Of. Here.

The small size of the journalism world further hit home as I ran into the NBC reporter Richard Engel. Richard and I met in Cairo in 1997 when we worked together in the Middle East Times. We managed not to strike up a deep and lasting friendship.

He left Cairo, worked in Jerusalem, then for radio around the region and finally was in the right place and the right time when ABC pulled its correspondent out of Baghdad just as the invasion started. Now he’s famous and continues to exhibit all those personality traits that endeared me to him from the beginning.

We made long and awkward conversation, wishing for the trial to restart.

And restart it finally did, only Saddam wasn’t there and instead it was his half brother Barzan who took up the mantle of dramatic theatrics, though without half the panache and style of Saddam.

We all hurriedly scribbled to are editors of Saddam’s defiant rejection of the court and that was the big story the next day.

It was only later that I found out what really happened. It seems Saddam’s defiant speeches are mostly for the camera, privately he’s a little less combative.

No one’s reported what’s actually happened so far, I only learned it from a US official on double secret background, meaning I can’t use it, and it was confirmed by a friend sitting near the translators booth who witnessed the whole thing—even as we journalists were sequestered downstairs.

After telling the judge to go to hell the day before and announcing he wasn’t returning to the court, Saddam was in a quandary. He felt really bad. In a closed session, he apologized to the judge for his behavior. He promised to behave from now one, but he had one request, could he be excused from the next session to save face? After all, he did say he wasn’t showing up again, and how it would look if he was sitting there the next day. He promised to appear for the following session, in two weeks time.

The court magnanimously granted his request.

So much for your defiant dictator, thumbing his nose at Iraqi justice and the world. The irony is, he’s the one who denounced the whole trial as a piece of theater for American audiences.

It seems he’s not adverse to scripting his role either.

DispatchesAbu RayComment