BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The body of a key defense lawyer for Saddam Hussein was discovered yesterday hours after he was abducted from his home by gunmen allegedly dressed in uniforms of Iraq's Interior Ministry.
The shooting death of Khamis Ubaidi, 49, was branded an act of intimidation by surviving defense team members, who said the loss of the experienced, level-headed lawyer would deal them a serious setback as Hussein's human rights trial moves into final arguments.
Ubaidi was taken from his home as he was preparing to depart for Amman, Jordan, to get ready with fellow defense attorneys for July 10 closing arguments in the Hussein trial. Ubaidi's wife said the kidnappers carried Interior Ministry ID cards; a Ministry spokesman denied involvement.
Ubaidi became the third lawyer from the team defending the former Iraqi president and seven co-defendants to be killed since the trial began eight months ago.
Hussein and his co-defendants are charged in an alleged campaign of mass murder in retribution against Shiite villagers after an assassination attempt in Dujayl in the early 1980s. Prosecutor Jaffar Mousawi has asked the judge to sentence Hussein and two of his colleagues to death. Hussein and his fellow defendants went on a hunger strike yesterday to protest the killing, lead defense attorney Khalil Dulaymi told the Associated Press.
Defense attorneys described the loss of Ubaidi, who also represented Hussein's half-brother and former Iraqi intelligence chief Barzan Hasan Tikriti, as a serious setback that would inflict major damage to their case.
"The assassination's timing, just before the closing argument, is meant to intimidate the defense attorneys and impede their preparation of a defense," Dulaymi said.
Several lawyers and legal experts said they did not expect the killing to result in a mistrial or a lengthy delay in the court proceedings. Judge Raouf Abdul Rahman has consistently refused to grant the defense much leeway on procedural matters.
"The trial is pretty much over," said Michael Scharf, a Case Western University legal scholar who is following the court proceedings. "All that's left is closing arguments. I don't think that even if you were in a U.S. courtroom you would have a mistrial."
But not all lawyers watching the case agreed.
"Surely there is a basis for a mistrial motion," said University of California, Davis international law professor Diane M. Amann. "The failure to afford the most basic security to the defense team no doubt undercuts the ability of defense lawyers and investigators to do their job. It may be too much to expect zealous and effective representation - to which every defendant has a right - from attorneys who fear for their lives."
Officially second in command to Dulaymi, Ubaidi had emerged as de facto leader of the defense team because of his experience.
"He's more senior, more experienced," said Najib Nueimi, a Qatari lawyer who serves on the defense team. "I rely on him for the internal laws of Iraq."
Ubaidi often took on the role of restoring more cordial relations with the judge and prosecutors after periodic courtroom flare-ups by other defense attorneys. Scharf called Ubaidi a "voice of professionalism" among the often shrill defense attorneys.
"This is a disaster for us," said Amin Adib, an Egyptian lawyer who also is on the defense team.
Police discovered Ubaidi's body with multiple bullet wounds to the head on a busy thoroughfare in a poor Shiite neighborhood of Urr in northern Baghdad two hours after he was taken from his home in southern Baghdad.
According to accounts given by Ubaidi's wife to defense team members, Ubaidi was ordered from his home in the volatile southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora for questioning by men carrying identification cards of the Interior Ministry.
"They came with official uniforms," said fellow attorney Nueimi, recounting details of a phone conversation with Ubaidi's wife. "They showed their identification and claimed to work for the Ministry of Interior intelligence. They said they had some questions. After one hour, his body was dumped."
"The Ministry of Interior has no idea about what has happened," said Hussein Ali Kamal, a deputy minister. "We totally denounce the act, which is totally unacceptable. ... The Ministry of Interior is not responsible for what happened and could never do such a thing."
Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.