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Saddam tribunal set to start


- John Daniszewski

(Wednesday, March 9, 2005)

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[ Tough questions: Some worry about conducting proceedings in a war zone. ]


Fourteen months after Saddam Hussein was found cowering in his spider hole, the Iraqi tribunal set up to judge him and 11 of his top associates on mass murder and genocide charges is getting ready to hold its first trials. In the glare of world opinion, the court will be on trial, too. Few dispute the role of Saddam and his cohorts in the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds and Shiites. But many have questioned whether a court created under foreign occupation and held inside Iraq in the midst of an insurgency will be able to give a fair and universally accepted verdict.

International human-rights experts insist they want the tribunal to succeed but question whether the court, as currently constituted, will be up to the task. Some argue that there is still time to move the trials to another country, and operate them under an international mandate. ''It is going to be a challenge,'' said Richard Dicker, director of international justice at Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group in New York. Dicker and other human-rights experts are concerned about the decision to use the death penalty, unclear rules of evidence, and what they see as inadequate access by the accused to their lawyers. They also see a lack of transparency in the proceeding and question whether the Iraqi judges have the experience to handle such far-reaching cases. ''There was no independent judiciary in Iraq for 30 years, and these are among the toughest legal challenges for judges and lawyers anywhere to take on,'' said Dicker.

The dangers faced by court personnel were shown Tuesday, when gunmen attacked and killed investigating Judge Barwez Merwani and his lawyer son Aryan outside their Baghdad home. Merwani was the first member of the tribunal to be assassinated, but a Western legal expert said court employees have faced numerous threats. "If the judges are going to be killed if they sit in Iraq, then they've got to sit elsewhere,'' said Geoffrey Robertson, a British queen's counsel and expert in international justice who headed the first U.N. war-crimes trial in the African nation of Sierra Leone. ''You can't have justice in a war zone.'' Speaking after the assassination, he said it was now plain that the new government, when it sits, must agree to move the trials out of the country and reconstitute the court as an international tribunal with U.N. sanction. ''There's a narrow window of opportunity,'' he said.

The Iraqi Special Tribunal comprises some 35 specially appointed Iraqi judges and a workforce of 400 that includes lawyers, investigators, researchers and bodyguards. Advised at every step by U.S., British and other international lawyers, members of the tribunal have had to work behind closed doors, sifting through tons of documents and thousands of potential witnesses to address alleged crimes of the Baathist regime that took place over four decades. The judges and staff remain largely anonymous. Even the site of the planned trials has not been announced, although officials have said privately that a special courthouse is being constructed inside one of Baghdad's high-security zones.

Related Links:- 
Judge, Lawyer in Saddam Trial Killed
Saddam Foe May Lead New Iraq
Ramsey Clark: Defending Saddam
Special Report on Saddam Hussein Trial
Lawyers: US trying to "get rid" of Saddam
Saddam Hussein: Hero or Villain
Saddam defiant as he awaits trial

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