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Western Press Review: Hussein's Day In Court, The Search For Karadzic, And Targeted Assassinations

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 1 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Several items in the media today focus on the upcoming trial of Iraq's former leader, Saddam Hussein, as he made his first appearance in a Baghdad court today. Touted by some as the "trial of the century," many observers note that the kind of justice Hussein receives will be indicative of Iraq's commitment to building a just civil society on the ashes of his regime. Other issues addressed today include the sacking of 60 Bosnian Serb officials for the government's failure to locate and apprehend Radovan Karadzic and other indicted war criminals; taking the time to get nation-building projects right; Russia's bid for influence among its neighbors and beyond; and whether targeted assassinations -- in Chechnya, the Gaza Strip, or Afghanistan -- undermine the chances for peace.


In Saddam Hussein's Iraq, "fear, death and vengeance were the only laws of the land," says an editorial in the New York daily. "A new Iraq must be built on more solid foundations: democracy and the rule of law." And one of the first challenges will be bringing its former leader, Saddam Hussein, to justice. The paper says Hussein "should have a fair trial under an elected government applying the relevant principles of Iraqi and international law."

Iraq's former president will be formally charged today along with 11 of his top officials before a tribunal established in December by the U.S.-led Iraqi Governing Council. The court is headed by Salem Chalabi, the nephew of Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress.

The paper says proper trials will take several months and offer the opportunity "to unravel the mysteries and crimes of the Baathist era, including the secret mass graves and the true story of unconventional weapons programs." But the proceedings should not begin until an elected Iraqi government takes power in January. To begin the trials before holding elections "would not serve justice or help restore Iraq's standing in the international community."

As of today, the 12 accused men will officially be "criminal defendants under the legal authority of Iraq's interim government." And as legal defendants, the paper says they must "have the rights that go with their new legal status, including the chance to consult with their lawyers and safeguards against abusive interrogations."

The new Iraq should be a country "where the rule of law applies impartially to all."


The London-based daily says the image of Saddam Hussein "in court, in shackles and under guard, will be the most potent symbol that the regime in Iraq has changed."

And both U.S. and Iraqi authorities can be expected to use this symbol to full advantage. "If this public relations exercise can help to convince the people of Iraq that there is hope for the future, and so reduce the carnage on the streets, then so much the better," the paper says. But Hussein's day in court "should not blind us to the perilous situation that remains in Iraq."

His trial will be "a vital part of banishing the past and laying the foundations of the new state." But many decisive questions, such as whether Hussein should face the death penalty if convicted, should be left up to the elected government that will emerge from January's elections.

For now, "the best that can probably be hoped for is that the proceedings should have international jurists as observers and be conducted to internationally recognized standards." There might be some pressure "from the families of those who fell victim to Saddam's regime and from the many who felt the harshness of his rule themselves, to press for more summary justice. Any resort to the lynch mob, however, must be resisted."

"The Independent" writes: "How Saddam Hussein is treated will say much about the sort of state that Iraq is likely to become. Punctilious observance of judicial proprieties would be the best augury for a stable and law-governed Iraq in the future."


"The impact of this event in Iraq [will] be huge," says the London daily. "The effect in the wider Middle East, a region where dictators are rarely deposed[,] nevermind held to account, could be extraordinary." How the trial of Saddam Hussein moves ahead "will do much to shape the image of Iraq's new government in the international community," and will be "as significant as his fall 15 months ago or his capture last December."

The paper lauds the fact that it is an Iraqi court that will hear Hussein's case rather than the international tribunal at The Hague, which could have allowed the case to "[drag] on for years and provided a propaganda platform for the defendant."

And "The Times" says fears that the former Iraqi leader would receive hasty justice motivated by revenge have been misguided. "Saddam Hussein was, properly, made aware of his rights yesterday [and] he will acquire legal representation for his defense." These are the actions "of serious people determined to be seen as acting correctly, especially as a death penalty is highly likely."

Bringing the case against Hussein will not be easy, the paper says. Most people believe Hussein was aware of the torture and murder of his political opponents; the 1988 gassing of the Kurds in Halabja; the launch of the Iran-Iraq war; the 1990 invasion of Kuwait; or the slaughter of thousands of Shi'a after their uprising the following year. But even from the 30 tons of documentation to be reviewed, producing the proper evidence, "with the necessary political fingerprints and convincing witnesses," will prove a challenge.

The paper also calls for the trial to be as open as possible, including allowing television cameras into the courtroom. "[Every] moment should be carried live," and there must be no perception of censorship.


The Dublin-based daily's Chris Stephen discusses the sacking yesterday of 60 Bosnian Serb officials as "punishment" for their failure to locate and apprehend former Serbian leader and indicted war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic. Stephen calls the move by Paddy Ashdown, the top international administrator in the country, "the most drastic action yet taken by Western officials against Bosnia's former warring factions since the end of war in 1995."

Ashdown's "frustration" is shared far to the north in The Hague, where prosecutors have had to revise their optimistic assessment from the beginning of June that Karadzic could be in custody by the end of the month. The fact that Karadzic -- whom Stephen calls the "bouffant-haired former poet who led the Bosnian Serbs to war in 1992" -- remains a free man "is a major embarrassment for the international community."

When the civil war following the breakup of Yugoslavia ended, NATO forces in Bosnia "refused to arrest him and he lived openly in a villa 20 minutes from the NATO headquarters. When NATO's policy changed in 1997 and war crimes arrests began, Karadzic vanished. He has been missing ever since."

Several attempts by NATO commandos to apprehend Karadzic have failed, and Stephen says "with the NATO force now only 7,000 strong in Bosnia, the chance may have been missed."


An editorial in Moscow's English-language daily considers the thorny issue of targeted assassinations.

"Entire theses could be written on whether extrajudicial execution of suspected terrorist leaders can be justified" in legal terms, says the paper. But these arguments "do not answer a vital question about the effectiveness of assassinations of leaders of radical Islamic groups and terrorist networks."

Israel, for example, might experience temporary lulls in violence after it targets and kills suspected Hamas leaders. "Damage to an organization, though, does not necessarily hurt its cause, and Palestinian rage has only been fueled."

The February killing of former acting Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev by two Russian security agents in Doha brought no letup in violence in the Caucasus, the paper notes. Since then, the Kremlin-backed Chechen president, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, was assassinated, and a raid by hundreds of suspected Ingush and Chechen fighters in Ingushetia left dozens dead. The two Russian agents involved in Yandarbiev's killing were sentenced yesterday to 25-year prison sentences by a Qatari court.

Yandarbiev's death "might have had a short-term effect on the financing of the rebels, but it definitely dealt no mortal blow to their command and control," the paper says.

And "just like the assassinations of the Hamas leaders, the killing of [Yandarbiev] might in the end generate more support for the separatists' cause in Chechnya, as [Yandarbiev's] followers seek to portray him as a martyr."

Under these circumstances, the Moscow daily says, "the idea of assassinating a leader in an attempt to bring down an entire movement is a dangerous myth, where the biggest collateral damage is to the long-term chances for peace."


David Malone and Kirsti Samuels of the International Peace Academy say it is well known that nation building "is a long and complex process, but the dynamics of international relations encourage rushed interventions." A "short international attention span, a growing list of crisis states [and] the pursuit of 'exit strategies' that suggest [an] early and happy ending" all serve to render many international interventions hasty and, often, incomplete.

"If we are serious about state-building, it is time to face up to the reality. Building institutions that are robust enough to deal with the vicissitudes of human nature and political activity is not a quick process. It is futile to take on ambitious state-building projects and then succumb to international and domestic short-termism."

The authors say this approach is not only "morally deplorable," it is also "unjustifiable on pragmatic grounds, since the resources, effort and time invested are all to naught when crisis reignites."

Malone and Samuels suggest separating a nation's nascent political process from the transfer of control over institutions. "A staggered process of institutional handover," like that effected in Kosovo, might be a better approach.

A real commitment to nation building "requires a clear-eyed prioritization of crises, and the realization that the world should respond to a few crises better rather than to try to respond to more and fail."


A contribution to the daily by Daniel Twining, a former U.S. Senate foreign policy adviser and now of the German Marshall Fund, discusses Europe's "frozen conflicts" and Russian influence on the borders of Europe.

Moldova, for example, is "a country where the Cold War never ended." Russia maintains troops in Moldova to support Transdniester's bid for secession, and the Moldovan president effectively "answers to leaders in Moscow." Meanwhile, the region is home to international criminal networks trafficking in humans, weapons, and drugs.

"[Political] reform in Moldova has been frozen by the Transdniestria crisis," Twining says. And the Kremlin's "Transdniestria strategy" is similar to its approach to other "frozen conflicts" that are also "sustained by Russian military forces and political support," including the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Twining says Moscow's ambition is to ensure Russian troops "guard European borders and serve as outposts of imperial control in independent [nations]. In the absence of treaties legitimizing Russia's illegal military presence on its neighbors' territory, Russia will keep these conflicts 'frozen' -- ensuring that secessionist leaders who answer to Moscow remain in control."

Twining advocates a united trans-Atlantic campaign "to resolve the frozen conflicts and democratize Europe's borderlands." He also suggests putting these outstanding disputes on the agenda of the NATO-Russia Council.

Together, he says, the United States and Europe "should condition deeper Russian access to Western markets on Moscow's willingness to negotiate democratic political solutions to Europe's frozen conflicts."