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Iraq: Red Cross Wants To Visit Saddam Hussein As U.S. Works Out His Legal Status

The International Committee of the Red Cross says it is continuing to press Washington for a date to visit Saddam Hussein in detention. The former Iraqi president, held by U.S. forces at an undisclosed location in Iraq, was recently declared by Washington to be a prisoner of war. But his future legal status remains uncertain.

Prague, 19 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says it continues to discuss with Washington the possibility of conducting a visit with detained former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

A spokesman for the Geneva-based humanitarian organization, Florian Westphal, says no date for a visit has yet been fixed, but one could be set soon. "Our colleagues of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Iraq are discussing the practical aspects of a visit to Saddam Hussein at this moment with the U.S.-led authorities in Iraq. There has been no precise date fixed, but we are fairly confident that this first visit will happen soon," Westphal said.

Saddam Hussein, captured by U.S. forces two months ago, is being held by Washington at an undisclosed location in Iraq. The U.S. administration gave him the status of prisoner of war (POW) early last month in recognition of his former position as president and commander-in-chief of Iraq's defeated armed forces.

As a POW, Hussein is entitled to the rights afforded captured combatants under the internationally recognized Geneva Conventions. These include visits by the ICRC, the right to proper food, the right to exercise his religion, and the right to not be subjected to intimidation, insult, or public curiosity.

Westphal says the right of all POWs to visits by the ICRC is intended to ensure that they receive the basic level of humane treatment they are entitled to under the conventions. "The objective is really to make sure that prisoners of war or detained civilians are treated according to the Geneva Conventions," he said. "That means, first of all, monitoring the conditions of detention, basic factors such as food, health care, and accommodation, as well as the treatment of detainees by guards and by the authorities."

The Geneva Conventions do not set out a timetable for visits to POWs, but Westphal says the ICRC usually tries to conduct visits as quickly as security conditions permit. The continuing calls by the ICRC for Washington to set a date for visiting Hussein comes as the former Iraqi leader's ultimate legal status remains undecided.

In awarding Hussein POW status, Washington conformed with international standards for the treatment of captured enemies. But the decision has not pleased the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), which hopes to see Hussein stand trial before an Iraqi war crimes tribunal.

The IGC said this week that it will ask Washington to change Hussein's status when the United States hands over political power to a sovereign Iraqi government on 30 June.

Speaking at a regional conference in Kuwait on 15 February, the IGC's foreign minister, Hoshiyar Zebari said, "We will demand changing his status and handing him over to Iraqi justice to put him on trial."

The reason the IGC wants to reclassify Hussein is that he cannot legally be brought before a purely Iraqi tribunal so long as he is a POW. Instead, he would have to be tried by a military tribunal established by the occupying power -- that is, under the auspices of the U.S.-led coalition that toppled his regime.

For now, it is difficult to predict what Hussein's ultimate fate will be. Washington, which also wants to see Hussein stand trial for war crimes, has said it could be psychologically important for the Iraqis to try their former leader themselves.

Some U.S. officials have said that Hussein could be stripped of his POW status if evidence emerges that he played a leading role in the guerrilla insurgency against U.S. forces that has followed the defeat of his regime.

Dan Senor, a spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, said recently that Hussein's designation last month as a POW "leaves his final status undetermined." Senor added, "His ultimate disposition could be determined by new evidence that comes forward."

But the United States could face strong international pressure to maintain Hussein as a POW. That is because many human rights organizations question whether Hussein could receive a fair trial before an Iraqi tribunal. They also have expressed concern that Iraqi law permits execution -- a punishment barred in EU states and considered inhumane by the UN.

Since Hussein's capture, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has several times stressed the world body's desire to assure the former Iraqi leader gets a fair trial. Annan said in December that any court that tries Hussein must adhere to international standards.

"Whatever court is set up has to meet basic international norms and standards, and if -- in doing that -- one needs to get help from our side, I think it should be considered. But the emphasis should be in respecting the basic norms and standards, including international humanitarian law," Annan said.