CSI:IRAQ Goes to Court

Forensic archaeologist Sonny Trimble takes the witness stand in Baghdad, and the nation is riveted

After spending two years combing through Iraq's killing fields, forensic archaeologist Michael "Sonny" Trimble took the stand yesterday (November 30) as an expert witness in Saddam Hussein's trial. Trimble, a St. Louisan who was the subject of Kristen Hinman's September 14 Riverfront Times feature story "CSI:IRAQ," leads the Iraq Mass Graves Investigation Team, an international group of forensic anthropologists whose job is to assemble evidence of Saddam's alleged genocidal killing sprees.

The team has worked under brutal conditions in Iraq since July 2004, excavating and analyzing the remains of hundreds of Iraqis thought to have been killed during two government-sponsored campaigns, the 1988 Anfal and the 1991 Intifada. The team has included a handful of St. Louisans: Jim Kister, a Chesterfield radiographer; Matt Vennemeyer, a former death investigator with the St. Louis County Medical Examiner's Office; and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employees Jim Barnes, Kelly Bertoglio and Natalie Drew. Trimble heads the Corps' Curation and Archaeology division, which is based in St. Louis.

In more than five hours of intermissionless testimony at the Iraqi High Tribunal in Baghdad's Green Zone, Trimble described the deaths of 301 Kurds found by his team in three underground tombs. The evidence forms the crux of Iraqi prosecutors' second case against Saddam: They say he and six co-defendants committed genocide by ordering the murders of at least 180,000 Kurds in 1988 during an offensive known as Anfal, or "spoils." Last month Saddam was sentenced to death by hanging after being convicted of crimes against humanity in a separate case.

Forensic archaeologist Sonny Trimble testifying November 
30 at Saddam Hussein’s trial.
Chris Hondros/AFP/Getty Images
Forensic archaeologist Sonny Trimble testifying November 30 at Saddam Hussein’s trial.

During the eight-month Anfal campaign, thousands of Kurds were killed with chemical weapons or burned alive during wholesale destruction of Kurdish villages, prosecutors say. Others were rounded up in buses, driven hundreds of miles from their homes in the northernmost reaches of Iraq and warehoused in detention centers for months before being marched into the desert and executed. It was there — in the sands of Ninewa and Muthanna provinces — that Sonny Trimble and his team found many of them sixteen years later: far more than they could excavate.

In a phone interview today from Baghdad, Trimble discussed his court appearance.

"It went really well, but almost nobody [in the U.S. media] covered it. They think this whole thing with Saddam is over, and my attitude is: Genocide is a little more important than 147 people just found dead. Not to denigrate 147 people getting killed, but we're talking 200,000 people here!

"Saddam and Chemical Ali [a cousin of Saddam, Ali Hassan Al-Majid, to whom Saddam granted executive powers over Kurdistan in the mid-1980s] were stupefied. They just kind of stood there hemming and hawing, asking me how far from the highway the graves were, things like that. I was about ten feet from them. Chemical Ali is the spookiest guy. He has these little snake eyes, big bags under his eyes. You can see this guy could flick his fingers and kill you, and it wouldn't bother him a bit. He'd keep eating a sandwich or something. Saddam almost looks like an uncle next to him.

"Saddam is a lot bigger guy than I thought he was. He's about six-foot-two and he's lost some weight now, so he looks pretty good. He was wearing a dark suit and a white shirt, and the only thing he said about me was I was an expert of the enemy and everybody should understand that. And I thought: I'll take that — that's not bad.

"The judges asked a lot of questions. The defendants can ask questions, too, and they had two or three good ones but were then out of gas, because I showed pictures, a lot, of at least sixteen or seventeen people specifically, close-up in the grave with their clothes on, and X-rays of all the trauma, their arms and legs blown to pieces. You look at that after a while — bullets going through their heads — and it's pretty clear what happened.

"At one point one defendant said, 'Well, Anfal was not about mass graves; it was about killing Peshmerga [Kurdish fighters] and the Iranians.' In a sense he was admitting that, yeah, these people got in the way.

"The Kurdish TV carried it, and there essentially was nobody on the streets up there. Everyone was watching it. I have a lot of Kurdish translator friends who were here, and they were all bawling and crying. This was a big day for them. They've been waiting for this fifteen years. George Bush being in Jordan was story number three in the Mideast and the trial was number one. It's kind of disappointing to me that there were only maybe three [Western] reporters in the press room to cover this whole thing. It's genocide!

"I had to stand on a little podium right in the middle of the courtroom. I told them this was a big presentation and I can't sit in a witness box to do it. Saddam was to my left. I looked at him a couple times. But I was trying to concentrate on the screen. Three minutes into it, I was completely relaxed.

"Instead of showing all the worst people that were shot up, I looked at the entire demographic sample and broke it down by age: Of all 301 people that we had excavated, the greater percentage of people killed were children — 60 percent. The judges heard that and started crying.

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