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Saddam's sole American lawyer defends his choice of clients

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Saddam Hussein

(CNN) -- The sole American among 20 lawyers who make up former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's legal team defends his decision to represent a man reviled by many around the world.

Human rights are universal, whether they be those of Saddam or those of "any other individuals I've represented," said Curtis Doebbler.

An international human rights lawyer, Doebbler's biography says his clients have included "an estimated 2 million internally displaced persons in Khartoum State, approximately 3,500 Ethiopian refugees in Sudan, dozens of political activists in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Peru and Afghanistan, and dozens of human rights defenders in numerous countries around the world."

In a telephone interview last week with CNN from Banjul, Gambia, where he was attending the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, Doebbler said he often chooses to represent people whose views are unpopular "because, sometimes, the people whose views we support the least are often the people who are treated the worst and whose human rights are jeopardized."

Respecting the human rights of unpopular people "is the greatest test of our rule of law," said Doebbler, who has also advised the Palestinians.

In addition to being attracted to clients with unpopular cases, Doebbler has a penchant for finding clients with meager financial resources. He predicted that his defense of Saddam would be done pro bono.

Though his biography puts his charge to commercial clients at $250 per hour, Doebbler said he does not turn down cases he likes just because a client cannot pay. As a result, he is still paying off his student loans and expects to continue to do so for many years.

"My remuneration from employment is so little. It's like the Third World debt. I hope one day they'll forgive it."

If his debt reflects the years he spent in school, that may not be hyperbole.

After his 1983 graduation from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where he studied journalism and English literature, he worked for short stints as a newspaper stringer, then returned to school, getting his first law degree from New York Law School in New York City, followed in 1993 by a master's in law from Catholic University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

Five years later, Doebbler earned a doctorate in international law from London School of Economics and Political Science.

Now a member of the Bar of the District of Columbia, Doebbler predicted his role on Saddam's legal team would be limited to advising on international human rights law. He said he is not at liberty to say how he snagged his high-profile client, but said it is already proving to be a challenging case. "It's very hard to defend somebody when you have no access to him," he said. "We need to know his view."

So far, he said, no charges have been filed against his client, "as far as we know."

It is not even clear where Saddam is being held, the lawyer added. "The U.S. government says he's being held in Iraq, but they're not willing to say where."

Citing the abuses documented by U.S. soldiers against Iraqis at Abu Ghraib, Doebbler added, "We're very much concerned with his well-being. You can imagine, these are very likely among the same people who are holding Saddam Hussein."

Though Red Cross representatives have visited Saddam twice, they have not been able to carry out an independent medical exam, Doebbler said.

The United States has declared Saddam to be a prisoner of war, as the former president requested, a designation that Doebbler called "appropriate."

Doebbler said he and the other members of Saddam's legal team are in regular contact with each other -- through faxes, telephone calls and e-mail -- and some of them may meet at the end of the month, "probably in Geneva."

Defending Saddam is a small part of Doebbler's professional life, which has taken him to more than 50 countries. He plans to spend the early part of this summer teaching in Kosovo, then travel to Mexico in August, followed perhaps by a trip to China, again to teach.

From CNN's Tom Watkins

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