Volume 76, Number 8 | July 12 - 18, 2006

Mother of all bummers: Saddam fears he’ll ‘hang,’says Clark

By Mary Reinholz

Not long before final defense arguments began for Saddam Hussein in Baghdad this week, Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. Attorney General under President Lyndon B. Johnson who is now one of Saddam’s lawyers, was spotted walking along 14th St. not far from the International Action Center, the militant antiwar organization he founded.         

Buttonholed by a reporter at an intersection, the rail-thin, khakis-clad Clark said he was concerned that Saddam, whose legal team he joined in 2004, was getting “railroaded”  by the U.S.-backed Iraqi high tribunal trying members of the former regime. He also noted that the deposed Iraqi leader was “fatalistic” and expected to receive the death penalty — possibly in his current case for crimes against humanity.

“Saddam believes in a secular government, but he’s a devout Muslim and believes Allah will abide and what happens will happen,” said Clark in a follow-up telephone conversation, adding that Hussein, who ruled Iraq for 24 years, “knows he’s in the hands of his enemies, and I think he believes they want him to hang and that the U.S. has arranged to finish him off.”

Clark noted that in response to the killing last month of Saddam’s senior defense lawyer, Khamis al-Obeidi, a Sunni Arab, one of three lawyers in his service to be murdered, Clark had sent letters to President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, General George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq calling on them to provide protection for the other attorneys representing Saddam and seven co-defendants. 

“Iraq is completely out of control. Nobody feels safe there,” said Clark, who initially opposed having Saddam tried in his own country. “I thought it would  be divisive and create instability, and it would be almost impossible for a fair trial.” He now believes that if Hussein is executed, the sectarian violence would get far worse because “It’s not a civil war like it is in the American mind of [Union troops] marching into Georgia. It’s Shiia against Sunni, Sunni against Shiia and Shiia and Sunni against the Kurds.”

The prosecution in Saddam’s case, meanwhile, has already demanded the death penalty for Hussein and two top associates for their role in the torture and killings of 148 mostly Shiite men and boys in the village of Dujail in 1982. Clark, in response, said that “this little Dujail” was dedicated to the overthrow of Saddam and that there had been an assassination attempt against him. Hussein also faces a trial in August for genocide in the killings of thousands of Kurds.

Defending pariah clients is nothing new for the peripatetic Clark, who in recent years was involved in the defense of former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, on trial for war crimes at a U.N. court in The Hague. He continues to represent Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian Muslim cleric who was convicted in 1995 for conspiring to bomb the Lincoln Tunnel and other New York landmarks.

The sheik, a former imam at a Brooklyn mosque who is now serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison hospital, was represented at trial by Downtown criminal defense lawyer Lynne Stewart. She was convicted last year for aiding terrorism and lying to the government. The government’s central charge was that Stewart defied jailhouse rules and issued a press statement on behalf of the imprisoned sheik to a Reuters reporter in Cairo detailing his advice to militant followers in Egypt who had been designated as terrorists by the U.S. Stewart’s two Egyptian co-defendants were also convicted in the case. 

“[Stewart] never should have been indicted,” said Clark, claiming that her prosecution “never would have happened without 9/11, and it’s shameful. I think she’s an exceptional human being and a courageous human being. She saw the sheik in solitary confinement on charges we all thought were extremely unfair to him.”

Clark scoffed at the government’s claim that the blind and diabetic Abdel Rahman was behind a fundamentalist Islamic bombing plot “because he couldn’t make a bomb, he couldn’t tell you where to put it and didn’t know much about New York. He wasn’t here as a tourist looking at anything. He was at mosques three and four times a day and preaching constantly.”

He compared Abdel Rahman’s case to that of “those guys in Florida” — the seven men recently arrested by the F.B.I. on charges of planning an Al Qaeda-like attack on the Sears Building in Chicago and Florida buildings.

Stewart, 66, a former school librarian long involved with radical politics, seemed to feel the same way about “those young men” in Florida, noting during a recent weekend conference on socialism at Columbia University that she intended to discuss the case in her remarks that evening.

Greeting well-wishers as her husband, Ralph Poynter, looked on protectively at Alfred Lerner Hall, Stewart passed out leaflets announcing a Brooklyn fundraising event for her defense committee and a presentencing rally by supporters on Sept. 24 at Riverside Church. She did not appear to be fatalistic about the prospect of getting the maximum 30 years in prison at her sentencing on Sept. 25 before U.S. District Judge John G. Koeltl in Foley Square, noting she was taking a “wait and see” attitude. “I going to do what I’ve always done — stand up for what I believe in and be myself,” she said. 

Stewart’s sentencing was postponed several times after a biopsy last December revealed she had breast cancer. A tumor was removed in January at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital and she subsequently underwent 33 treatments of radiation therapy. Her health, she said, will be among the issues her lawyers present when they ask the judge that she receive a “noncustodial” sentence — no jail time but alternatives like house arrest or probation or a split sentence.                    

“There is no way a cancer victim is going to get state-of-the-art care in prison,” including even a mammogram every six months, said the silver-haired Stewart. “Do you know what [a mammogram] means in prison? They shackle you up, head and foot, take you out and shackle you to the machine. Body cavities are searched in and out of the jail. It’s an enormous ordeal.”

The prosecution, she claimed, wants her to get “the full sentence” of 30 years  because of the two terrorism charges contained in her five-count felony indictment for which she was convicted in February 2005. But Heather Tasker, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney, Southern District, said, “We have made no public statement regarding what sentence Stewart should receive nor have we filed a sentencing memorandum.”

Although Stewart says she has not yet been disbarred as a result of her conviction, she noted that New Jersey had suspended her license and that carried “weight” in other states.

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