St. Petersburg Times

Print storySubscribe to the Times

Hussein's defender: All deserve due process

A human rights lawyer says every war criminal should be prosecuted - in a fair trial.

Published December 6, 2004

WASHINGTON - In the low-lit dining room of an upscale bistro near the White House, Curtis Doebbler might be mistaken for a member of the establishment.

He wears a red tie, wire-rimmed glasses and a plaid scarf, and orders grilled sea scallops in thyme butter sauce. There haven't been many pictures of him in the paper or on TV, and you wouldn't guess by looking at him that his clients include one of America's most hated enemies, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

This isn't the first time that Doebbler, a 43-year-old international human rights lawyer from Buffalo, N.Y., has gone up against the establishment - or against his own government.

He has advised the Palestinian Authority, Sudanese leaders and Afghanistan's Taliban regime. He has called American soldiers cowards in print. He says President Bush is a war criminal - a more flagrant violator of international law even than Saddam Hussein.

As the lone American on a team of 23 defense lawyers selected by Hussein's family, Doebbler has received threats in his mailbox, over the phone and by e-mail. But he believes that everyone deserves a legal defense.

"Sometimes it might mean defending your enemy because his rights are violated, or prosecuting your friend because he is violating the law," Doebbler says.

"I realize this is probably very idealistic, but I would like to see everybody responsible for violations of international law punished, whether they are an Iraqi president or an American president. I think that's when we really prove the rule of law is functioning."

To the leader of the free world, he extends this offer: If Bush were on trial for war crimes and needed a lawyer, Doebbler would be glad to represent him.

* * *

Doebbler has spent most of his adult life outside the United States, as a student in the Netherlands and Britain, a law professor in Egypt and Uzbekistan and a lawyer and legal adviser in the Palestinian territories, and in Israel and Bosnia.

He has dual Dutch and American citizenship, and he lived in Khartoum, Sudan, in violation of U.S. sanctions. He has slept on the streets in London and Amsterdam. He speaks bits of Arabic and Hebrew, but neither language helped him the day he says Israeli soldiers beat him in East Jerusalem. Doebbler believes the soldiers mistook him for a Palestinian; the beating stopped only when he pulled out his American passport.

He believes his work is patriotic, and he's grateful for the freedoms America affords. Where else could he write, in a letter to the editor of a major national newspaper like USA Today, that his own nation's troops are not heroes but cowards because they "bomb defenseless countries from 30,000 feet, killing both soldiers and civilians without discretion"?

No country, he says, has as much power to help the world as the United States. Nevertheless, he believes that America has "violated more people's rights, more seriously and more times in the last four years than any other government in the world."

"That makes me feel very bad," Doebbler says. "It's almost like when you see your brothers or sisters doing something that hurts you, maybe not personally, it might be even something done to others. You still love them, but you feel very bad about it, worse than you would if it was somebody who you don't even know."

He says his guiding concern is for the world's most vulnerable people, those who depend most on the rule of law for protection. Among his less controversial clients are about 15,000 Ethiopian refugees in Sudan, many of whom already have been deported, and some 2-million Sudanese forced from their homes by war.

Yet his concern for the poor and weak often puts him on both sides of an issue.

He advised the government of Sudan and later filed a complaint against it on behalf of internally displaced Sudanese.

He protested against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Now he is defending the architect of the invasion.

He has written that "the essence of terrorism, that is often misunderstood, is that of being an underdog." He calls himself a pacifist.

Until recently, he condemned people who use force to attain their goals. No longer. Since Sept. 11, he says, the U.S. and other governments have used "extralegal means" to achieve their ends.

"I think when the government does that, it sets the example for individuals," Doebbler says.

For the record, he still believes Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was a violation of international law.

What about the vulnerable people Hussein tortured and killed? Doebbler says they deserve legal representation too.

"I think everybody, including Saddam Hussein, if he commits war crimes or genocide, should be brought to justice in accordance with the law," he says. "But that's different from being brought to personal justice."

* * *

Neither Doebbler nor the other lawyers chosen by Hussein's wife, Sajida, have seen their client. In July, Hussein and 11 other regime leaders were brought before an Iraqi judge who outlined their rights and crimes. Doebbler says it was an attempt to humiliate his client in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

He wants the former dictator tried before "an independent, impartial court" and points to the trial of ousted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, as an example.

"We might give Milosevic a bit of a soapbox, but I'll tell you, that judgment will be very difficult to challenge after the trial," Doebbler says. "People certainly will not be able to say, look, it was a fixup."

An Iraqi special tribunal, created by the U.S.-supported interim government, will try Hussein. He ruled Iraq for nearly 25 years and is accused of ordering the massacre of thousands of Shiites and Kurds and illegally invading Kuwait in 1990, among a host of crimes.

Many Iraqis believe that Hussein should be tried among the people he oppressed. Sayed Moustafa Al-Qazwini, a Shiite imam at the Islamic Education Center in Orange County, Calif., lost 15 family members to Hussein's regime. He fled Iraq in the 1970s. He thinks Hussein should have a defense lawyer, but says it won't do any good.

"I don't want him to be executed immediately, although he deserves execution," Al-Qazwini says. "I want the government of Iraq to take him from one city to another, for Iraqis to look at him before he is killed. I think what is worse than killing is humiliation.

"We don't want people to hit him, to physically abuse him, but just to look. We want those mothers who lost children because of him, children who lost parents, women who were raped in prisons by his secret service agents, just look at him, to see that an absolute ruler like Saddam Hussein, who one day no one dared to look at, that today he's sitting in a room, in a cage, and many people are coming to look at him."

Greg Kehoe, a Tampa lawyer who is the U.S.-appointed regime crimes liaison in Baghdad, has been advising the Iraqis and collecting evidence of war crimes. He says lawyers can visit Hussein any time they want - as long as they are Iraqi or have authorization from the Iraqi bar to practice. The problem is that no lawyers with those qualifications have come forward.

Doebbler says Hussein's legal team includes Iraqi lawyers. In June, he filed a case with the U.S. Supreme Court on Hussein's behalf, asking that he be allowed to meet his attorneys, that he not be interrogated and that he not be turned over to "any entity that will not respect his rights under the United States Constitution and international law." Hussein has since been transferred to Iraqi legal custody, but he remains in the physical custody of the United States.

Doebbler isn't the only one concerned about the Iraqi special tribunal. The United Nations has refused to help train war crimes judges and prosecutors because the tribunal includes a death penalty provision.

Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at New York-based Human Rights Watch, says there are "serious flaws in the conception and design" of the tribunal. One of the most grave concerns, he says, is that Iraqis don't have the expertise to try complex war crimes cases.

"I've spent a number of years trying to see that the Iraqi leadership, Saddam Hussein and Chemical Ali, are charged with genocide against the Kurds, so I'm not carrying any torch for the Iraqi leaders. I want to see them brought to justice," Dicker says.

"But the trials, if they're going to be credible, have to be fair. That's my concern: that the trials will short-circuit the necessary protections of fair trials and due process and will seem to be more political vengeance than real justice."

* * *

Doebbler grew up in Buffalo and later Westchester County, on the outskirts of New York City.

His father was a research biochemist, his mother an immunologist who quit her university job to teach poor kids at a public school in the South Bronx. She was devoted to teaching, but she was beaten up so many times that school officials feared for her safety, and eventually she gave it up.

"She's the type of person that believes people are sort of intrinsically good," Doebbler says.

From the second-floor windows of the school, you could look out over the rubble of the Bronx and see the gleaming towers of Manhattan. For Doebbler, that image became an archetype of social inequity.

He studied literature and journalism at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and law at New York Law School, the London School of Economics and Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

He moved to Sudan in 1997 with his partner, an Italian woman and United Nations employee who was posted there. He taught law at Khartoum University. Next semester, he will teach at An-Najah National University in the West Bank city of Nablus.

In 2001, an intermediary approached and asked him to help the Taliban. Doebbler thought there was a legal avenue that might avert an American war: an obscure international treaty that allows a state to forcibly extradite suspects in crimes against civilian aircraft.

While American bombs rained on Afghanistan, he traveled to Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual base. He saw men shooting up into the clouds, aiming for planes they could hear but not see.

He says that much of his work has been unpaid - including the Hussein case. He makes most of his income teaching and writing electronic legal course books.

He says his decision to represent Hussein wasn't easy. An intermediary - he won't say who - approached him shortly after the former Iraqi leader was caught in an underground room near Tikrit, Iraq, last December. Doebbler thought it over. He talked with his other clients.

He agreed, in part, because he says he feels "some obligation to represent people who have been injured by my government's illegal action."

Perhaps even more important is his belief that the law, unlike the real world, offers equal protection to the vanquished, the vulnerable.

On a recent afternoon, Doebbler stopped to chat with a homeless man who sat on a park bench around the corner from the White House. He asked the man how he came to be living on the streets.

The man held a hand-lettered cardboard sign ("Homeless, can you help?") and an empty Starbucks coffee cup. Later, a reporter told him who Doebbler was.

"With all the money they put into Iraq," said the man, a 26-year-old named Joey, "they should clean up the streets of D.C. a little."

Doebbler says that human rights law ensures a "lowest common denominator" for humane treatment in society. By the same logic, he says, a homeless person deserves as much respect as anyone else. As much as a friend or a relative. Even a president.

Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Vanessa Gezari can be reached at 727 893-8803 or

[Last modified December 6, 2004, 00:10:20]

World and national headlines

  • Holdouts blocking Intel bill bandwagon
  • Hussein's defender: All deserve due process
  • Thai air force showers peace
  • Ohio vote certification won't go unchallenged

  • World in brief
  • Egypt, Israel trade prisoners
  • Back to Top

    © 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
    490 First Avenue South • St. Petersburg, FL 33701 • 727-893-8111