The world's favourite villain in mother of all libel battles

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The Independent Online
At first glance, it would not appear to be a court action with great prospects of success. Saddam Hussein, the world's favourite stage villain, the man responsible for more acres of unfavourable ink than anyone else alive, brought a libel action in the French courts yesterday.

The Iraqi President, once described by President Bush as "worse than Hitler", took exception to an article last September in the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur. Saddam's lawyer says he was especially angry at being called a "perfect cretin" and a "benet", which translates as "noodle". He was also irritated at being described as an "executioner", an "assassin", a "tyrant" and a "monster". But it was the magazine's suggestion that he was stupid and incompetent, based on information supplied by other Arab leaders, which most annoyed him.

Saddam's lawyer, Patrick Brunot, said he was ready to call a string of character witnesses on his client's behalf. These would include the former French foreign minister and EU commissioner, Claude Cheysson. After a preliminary hearing, the 17th chamber of the Tribunal Correctionel said it would decide whether to accept the case on 1 April.

Lawyers for the magazine asked for the action to be dismissed on the basis of a clause in the French defamation law of 1881, which allows journalists to criticise freely the political record of politicians. Under a different French law Saddam might have been able to sue the magazine for being "offensive to a head of state". This avenue is denied to him because France has no diplomatic relations with Iraq. Saddam is therefore bringing the action as an ordinary citizen.

Saddam's motives for bringing the case are unclear, although the F300,000 (pounds 33,000) claimed would probably come in useful. It seems unlikely that he would attempt a similar legal action in the US or Britain. The Independent published extracts from the offending article, as did newspapers in several other countries. The French press speculated yesterday that the Iraqi leader felt obliged to defend his reputation in France, because it is the one Western country which has been mildly sympathetic to him (and anxious to rebuild its commercial contacts with Iraq) since the 1990 Gulf War.

Le Nouvel Observateur, its managing director, Claude Perdriel, and its editor, Jean Daniel (also the author of the article) have pledged to contest the action vigorously if the court allows it to go ahead. Mr Daniel said he would use full-scale court hearings to relate in full Saddam's responsibility for the gassing of Kurdish villagers and the huge death toll in the Iran- Iraq war. John Lichfield, Paris