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Iraq: NGOs Urge International Role In Trials

  • Don Hill

Yesterday Iraq's new Governing Council decided to create a commission to prosecute members of deposed President Saddam Hussein's regime accused of crimes against humanity. Such a body, however, would need lots of international help.

Prague, 16 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Two of the world's leading human rights organizations are hailing a decision yesterday by Iraq's new Governing Council to create a judicial commission to prosecute former officials of Saddam Hussein's ruling regime accused of crimes against humanity.

But Human Rights Watch warns that trying such crimes will be too complex for Iraq's battered and inexperienced judiciary to act alone. And Amnesty International says that such trials must be impartial and congruent with international human rights standards.

Both groups call on Iraq's new authorities to seek international advice and help in bringing to justice those guilty of atrocities.

Human Rights Watch's representative in Iraq is Hania Mufti. She says in a telephone interview from Baghdad that the Governing Council's evident emphasis on bringing officials of the former regime to justice presents a desirable contrast with the actions of officials of the U.S.-led coalition:

"It was a very welcome step that the Governing Council did make this a priority -- looking into accountability and justice for past crimes. And this was in sharp contrast to the coalition authorities' apparent lack of attention and commitment in that domain, because they haven't even announced a strategy for dealing with past crimes," Mufti says.

Mufti says that Human Rights Watch believes that Iraq should seek international expertise and assistance on each step of the way toward developing an approach to prosecution and trial.

Human Rights Watch says that among the crimes that need to be investigated and prosecuted are a genocidal campaign against Iraqi Kurds in which 100,000 civilians died and 4,000 villages were destroyed; the use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops and against Kurds; the abduction and killings of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis; and killings and repression of Iraq's Marsh Arabs.

Such trials will be so complex, Mufti says, that they will need the assistance of international experts with experience in this kind of jurisprudence:

"We feel that, you know, the devastation of the Iraqi judiciary as the result of 30 years of Ba'ath rule and interference [adds to] the fact that these trials, particularly of the top figures, are going to be highly complex criminal trials with which few Iraqi judges, whether they were in Iraq or in exile, are familiar," Mufti says.

The human rights watchdog concurs with the Governing Council that Iraqis themselves should control and be active in any prosecutions. Mufti says that the Iraqi officers could work alongside expert judges, investigators, and prosecutors with experience in past international prosecutions.

"You could have a mixed panel of Iraqi judges as well as international experts that have already had the experience -- they may have sat on panels of the other ad hoc [single-purpose] courts that have been created today. And, in addition to that, international assistance can come in the form of investigators, in the form of prosecutors, and not just the judges," Mufti says.

Mufti expressed her organization's concern that U.S. and British authorities in Iraq have been laggard in considering the issue of bringing to justice perpetrators of high crimes. She says that significant evidence from mass graves has been lost because the authorities failed to protect them despite pleas that they do so.

She says the problem has not so much been that coalition administrators have been uncooperative as that -- given the immense load of their responsibilities -- they have failed to give sufficient priority to preservation of evidence and the needs of future investigations and prosecutions.

"They cooperate in the sense that, you know, we do receive information that we ask for and they generally are accessible," she says. "But what we would like to see in some action beyond that, in the sense that policies that are adopted in principle should be implemented. And there needs to be more thought and more effort made into actually bringing all the relevant people together in order to bring about -- in the case of the mass graves for example -- a combined strategy that would work across the country."

For its part, Amnesty International said in a statement today that perpetrators of crimes against humanity and other crimes committed under the previous Iraqi government must be brought to justice. But, the statement said, this must be by independent courts acting impartially and in accordance with international standards.

In order to accomplish this, Amnesty International said, the new judicial council should seek the aid of international experts.

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