WASHINGTON, D.C.—Curtis Doebbler, a human rights lawyer who has been retained to defend Saddam Hussein in his upcoming war crimes trial, tells a story that he says hints at the problems with America’s occupation of Iraq.
Since July, he said, he has been approached by not one but two separate organizations funded by the United States to help train the judges of the Iraqi Special Tribunal. Their proposal? That he contribute to the training.
After the first request, Doebbler told the organization, which he won’t name, that he would probably have a “conflict of interest” instructing the judges who would be trying his client. Then came a second request. “At one point, I was told, ‘Ah, we’ve signed you up to come to Jordan to participate in the training.’
“To me, I find that incredibly inept,” Doebbler said. “I think it shows the . . . incompetence by which they’re going about this. It troubles me.”
Doebbler is the only American member of a team of lawyers hired by Hussein’s first wife, Sajida, who lives in exile in Qatar, to represent her jailed husband. Last week, one of the group’s Iraqi lawyers, Khalil al-Dulaimi, met with Hussein, after being escorted blindfolded to the secret location where he is being held. It was the first time Hussein, who is to be tried along with 11 of his associates, has met with an attorney.
Also last week, there was confusion as to whether the war crimes trials have actually started. Iraqi officials were quick to play down the interrogation of Ali Hassan al-Majid, known worldwide as “Chemical Ali,” and another Hussein aide as routine pre-trial questioning.
Over lunch on December 17 in an expensive Georgetown restaurant, Doebbler talked about his participation in Hussein’s case, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and his work defending human rights. During the 90-minute interview, the New York native said he is motivated to defend the man many believe was among the most ruthless dictators of the last century not just to uphold norms of international law, but to expose the Bush administration, whose activities over the last four years—in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in the detention of prisoners in Guantánamo Bay—he called “illegal.”
Doebbler, 44, has represented or advised an eclectic mix of clients, including Ethiopian and Sudanese refugees, the Taliban regime, the Palestinian Authority, and prisoners held by the U.S. at Guantánamo Bay. He said he was approached by an intermediary to join Hussein’s legal team.
“I put my name forward because I thought I could make a contribution,” he said. “I’m an international human rights lawyer. I represent, literally—and this is not fallacious—millions of people. I have power of representation for an estimated two and a half million internally displaced people in Khartoum state in Sudan.
“I wish that case got the attention that this case does, because I believe everyone’s human rights are equally important,” he added. Doebbler suggested his defense of Hussein would have a positive impact on the more “vulnerable” clients he represents.
And he believes few other human rights lawyers with his qualifications would have taken on Hussein as a client. He may be right. Though there has been no formal charge sheet against him, Hussein heard preliminary accusations against him at a court hearing in July, related to the gassing of thousands of Kurds in the town of Halabja, and the 1988 “Anfal” campaign of ethnic cleansing; the assassinations of Iraqi political activists over 30 years, and the crushing of Shiite and Kurdish uprisings after the first Gulf war; the disappearances of 8,000 members of the Barzani family, and the executions of Shiite religious leaders in 1974. Also, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Doebbler said he was opposed to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for a country to resolve a dispute with another country using force,” he said, adding that he would need more information before he could say whether that invasion was illegal under international law.
Neither is Doebbler a supporter of the Bush administration, a government he says “endangered the lives of 52 million people” with its “illegal” invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. “The legitimacy of the tribunal, in part . . . depends on the legitimacy of the U.S. action in the first instance,” he said.
Doebbler maintains a website with his writings, and it is a catalog of dissent. There is a paper called “America’s Illegal and Cowardly War on Iraqis,” and another decrying aspects of globalization. There is a critique of his fellow citizens. “Americans are part of the richest most powerful country in the world,” he wrote in an essay titled “What It Means to Be an American.” “We can do what we want, buy what we want, invest in what we want, and kill whoever we want—the last as a country of course, not merely as individuals.”
Asked whether his time might be better spent bringing the cases of Iraqis hurt by the American invasion to American courts—as one Iraqi family recently did in the United Kingdom, winning an inquiry into the death of a relative—Doebbler said that apart from his work on Hussein’s case, he acts as a “conduit” for such cases, introducing Iraqis to people in the U.S. who are able to help.
The Iraqi Special Tribunal, as the war crimes panel is called, has been wrapped in controversy almost from the first, tarred by the same charges of illegitimacy that have dogged the government of Iraqi interim prime minister Ayad Allawi. Critics say the strong involvement of the U.S. in both Hussein’s capture and imprisonment, and in the training of prosecutors and judges for the tribunal, compromises the court’s fairness. The U.S. has also paid for the tribunal’s 2004-5 budget.
Doebbler has said that he favors an international tribunal for Hussein, saying it’s unlikely his client would get a fair trial in Iraq. This is a messy political topic. In Iraq, as in countries like Rwanda that witnessed mass atrocities, there is frequently a desire, especially by victims’ families, for physical proximity to justice.
“I certainly recognize the argument . . . for individual aspirations in the country,” said Doebbler. “To me the overriding aspect is that international human rights law be respected, and international humanitarian law. That might require an imperfect form of redress or closure for individuals in a country.”
Michael Scharf, a professor at Case School of Law who is helping to train the Iraqi tribunal’s judges, said that while the court isn’t ideal, none of the proposed alternatives would work either. In a phone interview, he called the judges he had met so far “bright, quick, and enthusiastic,” and said they were “ideal law students.” Scharf also said he believed that the U.S. officials involved in preparing the court are committed to fairness.
Still, Scharf, who 10 months ago wrote that the tribunal risked being seen as a “puppet of the Occupying Power,” admitted that having the tribunal’s judges be selected by longtime Hussein critic Salem Chalabi, with help from the U.S. and other organizations, didn’t help perceptions of bias.
After Scharf wrote an editorial in the December 19th Washington Post arguing that the war trials in Iraq could be fair, he participated in an online discussion with readers. Doebbler joined in.
“Rather than debate your many wrong or misleading statements online, I would like to invite you to debate me in person,” Doebbler wrote, typing fast. “Maybe The Washignton Post would even be willing to host such a debate.”
“I would enjoy a public debate with you,” Scharf fired back. “By the way, you spelled Washington wrong.”
It is not clear how important Doebbler’s role is to Hussein’s legal defense. Doebbler would only say that all the members of the legal team are in contact with each other, though he did hint that Hussein may not even know he has an American lawyer.
“Unless we’re willing to go back 100 or 200 years, it is crucial that we show some respect for the rule of law, regardless of who is on trial today or tomorrow,” he said. “This is something that affects everyone, our children and our grandchildren. That is what’s on trial here.”