Izzat is the lawyer of former deputy prime minister of Iraq Tariq Aziz, and currently is the chief attorney of the defense in the Anfal (gassing of the Kurds in Halabja in 1988) trial. He was recently whisked from Iraq by the U.S. military after being threatened by the Iraqi judge in his trial since he is accusing the Iranians, instead of the regime of Saddam Hussein, for gassing the Kurds in Halabja in 1988.
Izzat graduated from Baghdad University in 1963, was Iraq’s deputy minister of information, then after disputes with the regime of Iraq left in 1972 to set up his private practice. He “had the view that the Ministry of Information was expressing the views of the Ba’ath Party rather than the views of the people of Iraq, so that’s why I left. I must say that I was a member of the Baath Party, and I resigned from it in 1969 because we don’t have the same views on major issues in Iraq.”
Read the news story for Al-Jazeera English here
Below is the full interview, which is recommended in addition to the news piece.
(click on images for captions)
Dahr Jamail: Why did you take this job of defending people from the previous regime?
“Why did I take this position of defending people of the previous regime? Had this happened by a coupe de tat or a change of regime internally, probably I would not have taken the job. I probably would not have defended the symbols of the previous regime. However, this regime was overrun by an occupation force, by an outside power, which had no right to do, and I feel it is my duty to defend the people who are representing the previous regime.”
In fact, I felt so strongly about it I am acting on behalf of 15 of the detainees and probably have the largest number represented, and I’m not charging them anything for my services.”
DJ: What has it been like for you working on this trial?
“It was disturbing to me right from the outset when I was attending the investigation sessions that I noticed that the investigating judge was spending more time on politics than law, and this explains why I spend as much time on politics as the law.
The problem started when I started to defend Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister and the highest ranking Christian member of the government and known to have many secrets from the former government. This caused a great deal of discomfort to the current government, that I’m defending Tariz Aziz as well as others. This is why they’ve tried to shut me up or get me out.
I was in a double jeopardy situation. My life was threatened by the militias, the religious fanatics in Iraq, and those who opposed the previous regime. And at the same time the court was also trying to get rid of me on the basis that I was one of the people exposing the weaknesses in the trial before the public at large, both in and outside of Iraq.
The militias, there were three attempts on my life. My office was burned down. Some of my children were kidnapped. One of my assistants was assassinated, and I believe these militias are Iranian-backed. My children who were kidnapped, there was much assistance I had in getting them out of this dilemma. I got them out safely. This was the immediate and most prominent danger that I had-that my family was threatened, so I got them out.
On the side of the court, right from the outset I noticed that the court was trying to highlight the things that I do or don’t do. They were trying to frame me so they can dispose of me in the trial, so they want to get rid of me being a member of the defense team.”
DJ: When did you begin to feel this court was unfair?
“The first incident took place about five or six months ago. During the court proceedings I referred to the prosecutor as “My learned brother.” That raised hell in the court. The judge said I shouldn’t call him a brother, but “Mr. Prosecutor.” Based on this, the judge sent me to 24 hours in detention.
This obviously caused the Americans quite a lot of concern. It was quite an embarrassment to them, so after just a few hours in the prison they got me out and they removed me from the detention center into one of the safe houses in the “green zone.” The Americans convinced the judge that I should be released because otherwise it would be an embarrassment, so I was released.”
DJ: Can you describe what happened recently which caused you to be in Syria today?
“The other incident which took place about 15 days ago I entered the court and raised my hand and said I had something to say about certain issues. There were a number of other counsels who raised their hands before me, so they should have had priority. But the judge immediately came to me to speak because I think he had particular intentions. I usually have a feeling when the judge begins to look in the upper gallery, which has blackened glass so you can’t see into it. When the judge looks there, this generally means there are senior officials, like [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki or others. So as soon as I raised my hand he looked up, I had the feeling he wanted to give me the priority so he could show them how he was going to deal with me or penalize me. The angle was such that the judge could see through the glass, but not us lawyers.
I told the court that the court and Iraqi government had been going along the line that it was Iraq who used the chemical weapons on the Kurds during the Anfal campaign. I told them I had evidence on CD documents which shows the Iranians, and not the Iraqis, which used the cyanide and this documentation was from the Americans themselves. The judge at that point lost his temper and he began to shout and me and said I had no business in involving Iran, that Iran never used chemical weapons. He pointed to the defense and said, “It is those who used the chemical weapons on the Kurds in Halabja.” He was so angry and unbalanced in his attitude that it reminded me that somebody had told me on 1 March that I understood the judge was in Iran. So I thought that was what triggered this great deal of anger in the judge.
Under the rules of justice, a judge should not be visiting one side that is accused of crimes. He went to Iran, while Iran is, at least in our eyes, accused of these crimes and he was the guest of the Iranians. Under the rules he is not entitled to visit one side and take their side. I know the people who saw him traveling from Iraq to Iran on 1 March. At that point, the judge looked up to the place where the officials are and said, “I just remembered that a few months ago you accused this court as being a court for murder and not for justice. This is an insult to the court, and in accordance with article 232 of the code of criminal procedures, you have insulted the court which entails a seven year prison sentence. So I will first detain you, then charge you with this, and begin by imprisoning you for 4 days.”
At that point I was dragged out of the court by the ushers and the police. I was handcuffed, and deprived of practicing my role as a lawyer for my client, who is Farhan al-Jubouri, who is the ex-intelligence chief of the eastern region of Iraq.
This is extremely disturbing and dangerous of a step to take for the court. This man, the judge, has charged me with something I was supposed to have done 3-4 months ago outside the court. He is abusing his power as a judge to raise the issue now and charge me at this point, and deprive me of my right to practice my defense of my client. This is clearly a breach of all the norms of practices of trials, it’s a breach of Iraqi law, it’s a breach of all the conventions on trials, justice and fairness. I’m disturbed and surprised that none of the legal and human rights groups, or governments lifted a finger to object to this and so I was left to my own devices.”
DJ: What occurred next?
“At that point the American soldiers immediately came and surrounded me and the Americans looked extremely angry and disturbed with the attitude of the judge. Because this was done in the glare of cameras and this would reflect on the justice being supervised by America. It’s obviously a slap in the face to the Americans who set up this court, that they told the Iraqis they would have the rule of law and transparency. And at the end of the day I end up as a lawyer being arrested, and this is something that didn’t happen even under Saddam Hussein.
There was a little pushing and shoving between the Iraqis and the Americans and the Americans took custody of me. Despite the fact that I’m totally and absolutely against the occupation and will continue to be so, personally I’m very grateful for the American personnel who have saved my life from being killed by the Iraqis had I been left in their hands.
This was supervised by Mr. Ashton and Major Thompson. Ashy is the chief of staff in this exercise. Those two began the negotiations between the Iraqi soldiers and the Iraqi forces, and I understand this negotiation went to a much higher level. It went to the level of the two governments and I heard that Maliki was even involved in this because they didn’t want a conflict between the U.S. forces and the government of Iraq.
I would be appearing before the special court which deals with the terrorists in Iraq. If this happens I know I’ll be put in detention with the terrorists in Iraq. If this takes place, I know I’ll be put in detention with the terrorists and we’ve seen this before-that one of the inmates will stab me or something and they’ll say there is a political difference between me and him and find an excuse to cover it up. This warning came to me from some of the American personnel with whom I have a cordial relationship. They said this may happen if things continued on the way they were.
It may be more realistic to assume the opinions expressed by the Americans regarding this threat was a personal view rather than an official view. But what I’m certain of is that there has been quite a lot of differences between the Iraq and American governments over this detention. I understand it was the U.S. government and military in Iraq that were disputing with the Iraqi government.”
DJ: How were you treated by the U.S. military?
“Major Thompson is the liaison between the U.S. embassy in Iraq and the court. Mr. Ashton represents some of the U.S. command in Iraq. They were extremely cordial, respectful and helpful and they tried their utmost best so that I would not be handed back to the Iraqis. The compromise they reached in the court was that I would be taken to a safe house in the “green zone” which was one of the safe houses used by the Americans. I had Ukrainian soldiers looking after me and four Iraqi soldiers who, in fact I was technically in their custody, but really I was under the supervision of the Americans.
I was convinced that I should accept the idea that I should stay in this house for the four days. It’s not a prison and it’s the best solution available to us at the moment. They would look after me and it was comfortable with good amenities and facilities. During the days I was there, the Iraqis began to talk to me in a religious and fundamentalist way about Sistani and the various religious leaders and we had a little argument over that. Then when I wanted to watch the news on TV they wanted to watch pornographic films so I said, “What is this religious fanaticism you have and at the same time you are watching these films?” This created a friction between me and the guards. Effectively I said fine, everyone can have their own religion, but we need a secular system to run this country, not a religious one, and that made them very unhappy.
On the second day I began to feel very angry, wondering why am I being detained? I’m in my own country, doing my own job, I’m a respectful person, at the end of the day I’m being detained for no reason. So I became very angry and decided to go on a hunger strike. The Americans became very concerned by this idea and I was being visited three times a day by a doctor to check my health, and in fact my blood pressure went very high up.
On the second day another incident took place. Some visitors came to see the Iraqi police and the Americans became very, very angry. They brought in reinforcements, they put snipers on the roof, then they took all the mobile telephones from the Iraqi police on the base because they were calling in people to visit them. I said, “Leave it, it’s ok, don’t worry about it.” The Americans said, “No, they’re bringing in people who will kill you.”
This continued for four days. The Americans gave me a little more freedom, so I could exercise in the garden beside the house, so I had a little more freedom.
On the third day the major came with American special forces and they stayed in the house all night. They said to be prepared because something is going to happen tomorrow. They said, “We are going to protect you because we have instructions from higher authorities to protect you because something is going to happen tomorrow.”
DJ: Please describe how you were taken from Iraq.
“On the fourth day the Iraqi soldiers were all asleep, strangely enough. The Americans woke me up and they took me in a convoy of armored vehicles and other vehicles and they took me from the house to the area where the defense lawyers usually gather to enter the court. It was strange to leave the house where the Iraqi soldiers who were supposedly arresting me and looking after me were all asleep. I don’t know if they’d been drugged or what.
They returned my belongings which had been taken, and I was instructed not to use my mobile to talk to anyone outside. The Americans said they wanted to calm the situation because they didn’t want it to escalate.
At the same time I was not allowed to see my clients who were detained at another camp, the Cooper Camp. I was aggrieved since I couldn’t see them, so I decided to continue on the hunger strike. My health was deteriorating and I was being checked regularly by the Americans. I had a medical report for my heart condition that told me explicitly to go to Germany to get treated and if I wasn’t in that time my life would be threatened.
I was asked by one of the Americans if I was willing to be taken to the judge so I could apologize to him. I asked him, “For what? They should be the one to apologize to me, I haven’t done anything wrong. I will not apologize to anyone on this base.”
Nine days ago the Americans told me they’d spoken to the high judge who was supposedly going to try me for the terrorist act. They asked me if they brought me to court for the investigation, would the judge guarantee the Americans he would not be arrested, detained or tried. He said yes. They asked for him to give it to them in writing and he refused to give it to them in writing. So they came back very annoyed that it didn’t materialize. Then they came to me and asked me to get ready and be on standby because we’re going to take you out of Iraq at any minute. I refused to do so because I told them taking me out was not the solution. They said, “No, we’ll take you out to give us time to try to find a solution while you are outside.”
At 8 a.m. a convoy of American armored vehicles and cars with tinted glass took me in a very large convoy with my luggage to the airport. I was told that I will, for security reasons, be placed in the plane as the first or last passenger, depending on the circumstances.
I was the first on the plane and I stayed alone for about an hour until the other passengers came in and the plane took off at least two hours after schedule. It was a commercial airline.
I couldn’t help but notice the Iraqi soldiers were extremely annoyed that I was being escorted by such a big contingent of Americans. They were resenting that I was being taken out of the country and not handed to them. They resented that the Americans had taken control of the situation.
I am grateful, personally, to Ashton and Thompson for the way they treated me. But that doesn’t change the picture that I’m against the occupation and will continue to be so.
DJ: What is your message to the international community regarding these events?
“I would like to call on President Bush and Tony Blair to insure that I’m able to go back to defend my clients in Iraq, otherwise all the statements they have made about freedom and democracy and transparency and rule of law will be a shameful thing not only on them but on the U.S. people.
I’m now waiting for the action to be taken to allow me to go back to continue to do my job. But obviously I would want to have my safety guaranteed by the Iraqi government.
There is clearly a rift between the Americans and the Iraqis. Despite the fact that the Iraqis are the stooges of the Americans-the Americans brought these in power in and appointed them and empowered them, but it’s very clear to me, this fact, when the presiding judge, Al-Uraiby, said publicly on television, “Where is this accused Badea Arif? Where is he going to run away? The Americans won’t be able to protect him or save him.”
It is incredible that those who the Americans brought into Iraq are beginning to behave in a way that it’s beginning to make the Americans look more civilized than them, makes the Americans look better than them. Those people are really a disgrace.
In fact, judge Uraiby said to me, on air in public, that I was the friend of the Americans. He said that, despite the fact that he was the one brought by the Americans. When he said this the Americans were fuming, and that he was talking like an Iranian.
The idea that he said explicitly that “his friends the Americans won’t save him,” is incredible.
I call on everybody, in all nations, to enable me to go back to Iraq safely to continue my work there in the interest of protecting my clients, safely. It’s just not fair that those accused are deprived of legal defense.
I’m a fugitive now, technically. On the 16th of this month the court is resuming. And my clients, I can’t defend them, I can’t see them and I can’t go back because I’m a fugitive. And I call on all decent people of the world to at least see that I’m enabled in doing my job to defend those people who are entitled to a defense.”
DJ: Why do you think the U.S. military was ordered to save your life?
“I have a feeling one of the main reasons is that the court trespassed on the integrity of America. That it annoyed the Americans enough that they are trying to repair the situation. I have a feeling the Americans will force them to do so because to keep me out and keep the defendants without a defense would be embarrassing to the Americans and for the allies to allow this situation to continue. I have a feeling they are working on this at this present moment. It’s embarrassing for the Americans to allow this fiasco to take place.
I can assure you of one thing-that many of the members of the court are members of the militias that are very close and extremely well connected with Iran.
They [the Iraqi court] are now handing down very stiff sentences so people will be threatened and apply for political asylum. I know judges who have already applied for political asylum in other countries, they are trying to scare us off.
DJ: What is the current status of Tariq Aziz?
“He is encouraging me to continue the line I’m taking by exposing the court and taking this firm stance in order to achieve the rule of law. I believe Tariq Aziz will not be put on trial. Tariq Aziz has so much information and the charisma and power to talk, in fact you may recall during the trial of Saddam Hussein he gave a little information and the judge was very annoyed and told him he was likely to throw him out. Therefore I don’t think he’ll be put on trial and instead they’ll let him die in detention or find an excuse to kill him.
His health is deteriorating and is very bad because of his age and his general health. He has all the problems that you don’t want to have. He has a heart condition, hemophilia, blood pressure, problem with nasal passages.
One of my clients, Fadhil Abbas al-Hamary, was an employee of the military industrial organization, he is dying of cancer and is terminally ill. He is dying at any minute and neither the Iraqis nor the Americans give a damn about him. He’s not being allowed treatment and I think he’ll die very shortly without anybody worrying about that aspect and I think that is totally inhumane. There are already about eight people that have died in prison because of cancer.”