Reporter's Notebook: Watching the Trial

FNC's Greg Palkot
Regular viewers of FOX News know I usually don’t let my opinions get in the way of my reporting. But every once in a while I have to vent. And
Wednesday, on air, I had my version of a "Saddam Hussein rant." I told John Gibson on his show that the crimes against humanity trial of the former Iraqi president and his coterie was “going off the rails,” and the presiding Judge better "get his act together." I even suggested our Judge Napolitano should fly in and whip the thing into shape!

I’ve been reporting on the trial since the beginning, monitoring TV feeds. During that time, I’ve been giving presiding Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin the benefit of the doubt. Sure, he’s letting Saddam get up on his soap box from time to time and have his say. But that was all aimed, I assured myself, at making sure Saddam was not seen as a martyr and that the legal process of the tribunal was open and transparent.

I ran into the judge a few weeks ago at a hotel in Baghdad. He is a soft spoken pleasant man and I complimented him on taking on one of the most difficult jobs in Iraq right now. Then he posed a slightly unnerving question. He asked me how I thought he was doing. I was on the spot. I could either express my building concerns about Saddam’s grandstanding overshadowing the whole proceeding, or I could tell him I thought he was trying to strike a difficult balance between soft and hard. I chose the diplomatic latter.

Now I wish I had leveled with him.

Sitting through this week's performance by the ex-dictator, sitting for the first time in the press box just a few feet from the fellow who had dominated the lives of Iraqis for decades (and my own reporting for years), I was struck by the growing craziness of the man, and the process. It was similar to listening to an aging hippie having an LSD flashback about the Summer of Love in San Francisco. Except it happened in the middle of one of the most important legal affairs on the planet right now.

Scanning my notes of what Saddam said in just one tirade this week is like trying to read a road map of an insane asylum:

First he announced that he didn’t know anything about the brutal repression inflicted on the villagers of Dujail, following a failed assassination attempt against him there in 1982, until years later. Then he granted all those still in custody pardons. Which led naturally to hailing himself as the Father Figure of all Iraqis. And, how in his day he built, and built, and built (palaces that neither he or Iraqis ever really used) and Iraq was respected. And that he’s especially respectful of Iraqi women which is why he didn’t insult an earlier female witness when she said she was gang-raped by her Saddamite captors.

Then he ordered the judge to respect Iraq and act like a real Iraqi (not a tool of an American-engineered occupation). Then he discussed the size of the holding room for his co-defendants and himself and how they had to share a toilet and it had no windows. He let drop the small tidbit that he had been beaten by the Americans and he still had the marks to show it. In fact, he said, all of his co-defendants had been tortured “one by one.” Without offering any evidence of course.

Which is not to say he is a coward. He spoke of a time after the U.S. invasion of Iraq when he nearly launched a Rocket Propelled Grenade against a U.S. tank, but the tank turned around so he skipped it. And how he also would have fought the Americans the day they snagged him in the spider hole but thought better of it.

I could go on but I think you get my drift. The judge let him do all of this at a point in the trial when the defendant is only allowed to present a question to the judge to pose to the witness on the stand at the moment. But for whatever reason, the judge is letting Saddam go on and on and on about anything he wants to say.

He's even taking a hand in running the affairs of the court. When Saddam thought a guard was getting a bit too near his half brother, former Intelligence Chief Barzan al Tikriti, during one of Barzan's tirades, Saddam (and co.) demanded that the judge kick the guard out. Guess what? The guard left.

As noted earlier, maybe the judge is trying to bend over backwards to show that he is fair. Or maybe he is so certain of the dictator’s final fate that he’s giving him his last moment in the sun. Or maybe he’s still just plain intimidated by the man.

Whatever the reason, these various rants by Saddam are distracting attention from the whole reason this trial is being held. To expose to the Iraqi people and to the world the horror Saddam let befall his country. Instead of remembering or reading the gripping testimony of simple people who saw their loved ones killed, who endured torture, who watched while their village was uprooted, we hear about Saddam’s dirty underwear.

And it’s taking valuable time. In my early discussions with legal authorities they were talking about two months as a possible length of this trial. This week one estimated six months. And this is just one (a more minor one) of over a dozen cases waiting to be pressed against the terrible former tyrant.

The word I am getting from sources associated with the trial is that they, too are getting impatient with Judge Rizghar’s handling of the trial. I mean, he’s making the Hague War Crimes Tribunal, turned into a grandstand by ex-Serb chief thug Milosevic, look like a showcase of legal decorum. The Iraqi’s I watch these proceedings with are just going crazy listening to the certifiably mad things the judge is allowing Saddam to say (Saddam Hussien:"When I was in power I ran two complaint centers to which I encouraged citizens to come and submit their displeasure." Yeah, right).

In point of fact, most Iraqis would just like to see Saddam strung up now. But the trial was supposed to show how reasonable and right a proper legal process is and should be patiently attended to. The judge, and those who are handling him, are turning it into a farce. Or as one pretty Iraqi female TV reporter noted to me as she watched this week Saddam’s courtroom antics safely on the other side of bulletproof glass, “It’s all a play.”

Unfortunately the play is "The Thing." And right’s a tragedy.

Greg Palkot is a foreign correspondent for FOX News Channel based in Paris, France.

Greg Palkot currently serves as a London-based senior foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 1998 as a correspondent. Follow him on Twitter@GregPalkot.