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Iraq: Plans For Saddam Hussein's Trial Advance, But Many Details Uncertain

  • Charles Recknagel

Plans for putting Saddam Hussein on trial are advancing as Iraq's prime minister says the United States will hand over the former leader to Baghdad within two weeks. But many questions about the trial remain, including when it will be held, how the Iraqi government will ensure security, and whether the proceedings will be internationally monitored to guarantee fairness.

Prague, 15 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said yesterday he expects the United States to hand over Saddam Hussein to his government, along with hundreds of other prisoners, during the next two weeks.

"The current detainees, without exception, will all be handed to the Iraqi authority. The handover will take place within the next two weeks. Saddam and the others will be handed over to the Iraqis, to the government," Allawi said.

Allawi continued, saying: "The trial [of Saddam] will start as soon as possible. The handover will happen in the most transparent way. Saddam will be handed over to the Iraqi government."

The announcement has sparked intense press speculation as to how Saddam's transfer to Iraqi control will take place. It is believed Saddam is now being kept under tight security by U.S. forces at the American regional military base in Qatar.

But so far, most of the details of what might occur in the coming two weeks remain highly uncertain. One reason is that U.S. officials are providing varying information as reporters press them to confirm Allawi's statement.

The U.S. cable television network CNN today quoted its sources at the Pentagon as saying they are not aware of any immediate plans for Washington to hand over prisoners to Baghdad. The unidentified U.S. military officials say they expect U.S. forces to continue to hold Saddam and thousands of other prisoners, even after the Iraqi government assumes sovereignty on 30 June.

In still another version of what might happen, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said yesterday that the U.S. will release or turn over as many as 1,400 detainees to the Iraqi government by the end of this month. But Colonel Barry Johnson said U.S. forces will continue to hold between 4,000 and 5,000 other prisoners deemed a threat to the coalition.

Johnson did not mention any specific plans regarding Hussein.

Today, the Iraqi government repeated its position that Hussein will soon be its responsibility. President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir told reporters in Baghdad that Washington is "keen" to hand over the former president.

"Even [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush himself was asking me when are we going to be able to be handed the ex-president, Saddam Hussein. The United states is very keen to hand over the ex-president to the Iraqi authorities," al-Yawir said.

But al-Yawir appeared to leave open the question of whether any transfer of Hussein to Iraqi authority would see him physically moved or whether he might continue to be held outside the country -- at least temporarily -- due to security concerns.

"We must first make sure that we can maintain protection for [Saddam's] life until he goes on trial. We must make sure that the trial goes as a legal process. He has his own fair chance of defense, and that the government has its own chance in expressing charges [against] him," al-Yawir said.

Hussein is widely expected to face Iraqi judges only after the government puts lesser figures among some 100 former regime officials on trial. He is likely to be charged with crimes against humanity inflicted on his own people, including the use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in the village of Halabjah in 1988 and the massacre of Iraqi Shi'a following the Gulf War of 1991.

Hussein currently has the status of a prisoner of war under U.S. custody. According to international law, he must be charged before 30 June -- the date the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq formally ends -- or be set free.

The chief spokeswoman of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva said yesterday that such charges have not yet been filed. Antonella Notari said that charging Hussein would give the Iraqi government the right to try the former leader because "a prisoner of war who is suspected of having committed a crime must not just be released...he must be prosecuted, tried, through a legal proceeding."

To take custody of hundreds of other detainees along with Saddam, Allawi's government will also have to file charges against them before 30 June.

The ICRC's spokeswoman in Baghdad, Nada Doumani, said yesterday that not only the some 50 prisoners still held by the coalition as POWs, but also the thousands more detained as possible security threats are entitled under the Geneva Conventions to be released at the end of the occupation unless charged with crimes.

Doumani said the exact legal status of any detainees still held by coalition forces after 30 June would have to be determined by an agreement between the coalition forces and the sovereign Iraqi government.

Salem Chalabi, the Iraqi official tasked with filing charges against high-profile members of the former regime, said yesterday that charges against them will be filed soon. He also said secure facilities for detaining Saddam Hussein are being readied inside Iraq. Chalabi said: "We're putting it together. We should have it together very shortly."

U.S. and Iraqi officials have repeatedly said they consider it essential to try Hussein in Iraq to demonstrate that the country is building a new order that breaks with the record of the former regime.

Shortly after Hussein's capture by U.S. forces in December, Bush said Washington planned to work closely with Iraqi authorities in determining how he would be tried.

"We will work with the Iraqis to develop a way to try him that will stand international scrutiny -- I guess that's the best way to put it. The Iraqis need to be very much involved," Bush said. "They were the people that were brutalized by this man."

A member of the former U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, Muwafaq al-Rubay'i, said at the time that there was no question Hussein would be tried in his own country.

"He will be tried in Iraq, and he will be sentenced in Iraq, and he will serve a sentence in Iraq," al-Rubay'i.

In preparation for trying Hussein, Iraq's Special Tribunal for Crimes Against Humanity is appointing 50 investigators to prepare the state's case against him. The investigators themselves live under constant fear for their security. One of them already has been assassinated in Al-Najaf while collecting material there.

It remains unclear whether Hussein's trial will be internationally monitored to ensure fairness. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in December that any court that tries Saddam Hussein "has to meet basic international norms and standards." He said the world body stands ready to help, if asked.