A farce, starring Saddam
19-26 December 2005
Courtrooms can be powerful theatre. Take this description:
In the afternoon, the defendant was "chained hand and foot to a metal chair. A gag of muslin was in his mouth.
"The following morning, since the first gag had proved ineffective and the rattling of the chains had disturbed the jury, [the defendant] was brought to court strapped to a wooden chair. The gag was supplemented by another which passed under his chin ... Under the gag his mouth was taped.
"The following morning the gag was further strengthened by an elastic bandage and [his] mouth was stuffed with some kind of cotton..." (Jason Epstein, The New York Review of Books).
Not a trial in Stalin's U.S.S.R., but Chicago, 1969. The defendant was Black Panther Bobby Seale, charged in the Chicago 8 trial with conspiracy to incite a riot. This was a political trial, and Seale was behaving in the only way defendants can behave in such trials. Political defendants must demonstrate that courts are not above the fray and that the judges are not referees but enemies. Concede the neutral dignity of the justice system and the defendant loses. His only hope is to turn the trial into a free-for-all. Forcing the judge to gag you or preferably remove you from the courtroom are normal defence tactics.
As a political agitator, Seale went on trial inter alia for incitement, assault, attempted murder and murder, but his convictions were for contempt of court. Not bad, considering some 30 years later he admitted that the Black Panthers were guilty of extortion and homicide.
Political trials occur in most countries. Canada's treatment of Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, prosecuted for his political beliefs, beggars description. Zundel was filled with hate. He could have hated some currently harmless target like WASPs with impunity, but instead he chose Jews. Bad choice — at least for the time being. Unlike Seale, he recognized the legitimacy of the Canadian courts. Twenty years of persecution followed, including secret proceedings, incarceration and last spring, deportation. Zundel's case is a textbook example of how a decent country can do foul things to a foul man.
© Maclean's 2005
19-26 December 2005, p. 11.