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Peru, Uncategorized

Saddam, Milosevic hold key lessons for Fujimori trial

Saddam, Milosevic hold key lessons for Fujimori trial

  •  10 October 2007 03:11
  •  AFP (Carlos Hamann)
  •   832 Words
  • /
  • World trial rights Peru

As Peru prepares to try former president Alberto Fujimori for the abuses meted out under his rule, prosecutors face a familiar dilemma: how to ensure justice is properly served on all sides.

Past trials of presidents such as Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, though rare, provide important clues on the problems and pitfalls inherent in such tribunals.

Saddam’s trial and execution was widely seen as a victory for the US invaders of Iraq, while Milosevic, the former Serbian president, is viewed as having cheated justice by dying before a verdict was returned in his war crimes trial.

But both men got their moment in court and turned their spot in the legal limelight to good advantage, to berate the judges and mock witnesses, tactics which experts expect to see repeated in the upcoming trial in Lima.

Fujimori faces four trials in Peru on charges of corruption and human rights abuses linked to his 1990-2000 regime, and he faces up to 35 years in prison when his abuse trial opens November 26.

In theory putting corrupt ex-leaders on trial brings some comfort to victims, leaves a historical record, acts as a warning to tyrants that they cannot hide, and can help national reconciliation.

In practice however such trials “are inherently messy,” said Michael Scharf, a professor of international law at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. “But until you can find something better, it’s the best mess we’ve got.”

Saddam faced a special Iraqi tribunal organized with US support. He was found guilty in his first trial and executed for killing 143 villagers, a minor crime considering the magnitude of the other charges he faced.

Amnesty International described the prosecution as a “shabby affair, marred by serious flaws” and Human Rights Watch branded the trial a “lost opportunity to give a sense of the rule of law.”

One lesson from the Saddam trial is clear. “It’s a bad idea to do trials in the middle of a civil war, when the person that you’re trying clearly hails from one of the warring factions,” said Leila Sadat, an expert on international criminal law at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Safety for court officials and witnesses is perhaps the top concern for organizers of such tribunals.

In Saddam’s trial several defense lawyers were killed, prosecutors were threatened, and the judge and some witnesses relocated to Baghdad’s Green Zone for their safety.

The trial of Liberia’s former leader Charles Taylor by the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone has been moved from Freetown to The Hague due to fears it could spark unrest in west Africa.

Judges also struggle with balancing the need to let defendants speak, with preventing them from grandstanding.

“The trial then becomes about the defendant, and not the crime and victims,” said Mark Drumbl, an expert on human rights law at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.

One solution is for the court to appoint a defense attorney who is ready to intervene if the defendant misbehaves and is thrown out, said Scharf, who helped train judges and prosecutors for Iraq’s Special Tribunal and for Cambodia’s UN-backed Genocide Tribunal.

Drama and histrionics grab attention, but if the judge is too harsh the court loses legitimacy. “The world needs to see the case unfold and see the evidence,” Sharf said.

Live broadcasts are also a problem, because once the television cameras are rolling “it’s hard to maintain control — all of the participants view the trial as a stage,” Sharf said.

In both the Milosevic and Saddam trials, judges compromised “because they recognize that some disruption is the price you may have to pay to keep the defendant in the courtroom and make the trial look like a balanced proceeding.”

For Cherif Bassiouni, an international Human Rights law expert at De Paul University in Chicago, the solution is simple: put the defendant in a glass booth with a microphone controlled by the chief judge. The judge “allows him to speak when he’s supposed to speak, and when he’s not he cuts it off.”

The glass booth was successfully used in the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal put on trial in Jerusalem in 1961.

Bassiouni, who advises the United Nations on human rights in Afghanistan, had recommended a glass booth for the Saddam trial.

Instead, Saddam sat in the middle of the court room. “They gave him a great stage, which was stupid,” he said.

One way to steal an ex-leader’s thunder is to present corruption charges early in the trial.

The late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet successfully fought off charges linked to the 3,000 people killed and “disappeared” during his 1973-1990 rule. He stood trial only when investigators discovered some 13 million dollars hidden in off-shore accounts.

The corruption charges “had more effect than 10 years of much worse human rights violations charges,” said Drumbl. “It eviscerated the last leg of his political defense.”



About Carlos Hamann

Washington D.C.-based writer and editor


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