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Iraq: U.S. Steps Up Preparations For Hussein Trial

The United States is stepping up preparations to prosecute former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and other top members of his regimes for war crimes and crimes against humanity. This month, some 50 American lawyers, investigators and prosecutors began heading to Iraq to organize evidence and provide other technical support for a tribunal.

Prague, 12 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The first members of a group of some 50 U.S. legal experts began arriving in Baghdad this week to lay the groundwork for trials of Saddam Hussein and his top lieutenants.

The full team of experts is due to be in Iraq by the end of this month. All are from the U.S. Justice Department, which Washington has tasked with developing the case against Hussein.

The spokesman for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), Don Senor, told reporters this week that the foreign legal experts will organize evidence and provide other technical support for a tribunal.

But Senor said the U.S. experts ultimately will turn the cases over to Iraqi prosecutors to complete. He said: "The Iraqis will actually have the lead role, this will be their trial."

The CPA spokesman's statement suggests that Washington is increasingly determined to see Hussein tried by an Iraqi tribunal. That is despite Hussein current status as a prisoner of war (POW), which makes him the responsibility of the coalition.

Ammar al-Shabandar is the representative in Baghdad for the Washington-based Iraq Foundation, a U.S.-Iraqi group that has been active for years in gathering evidence of Hussein's human-rights abuses.

Shabandar says he expects Husseinto be turned over to Iraqi authorities soon after the U.S. hands over power to a sovereign Iraqi government by 30 June: "The way it will work is that as soon as the occupation is over Saddam's status as POW will be changed. [The coalition] will surrender him to his own government, so if he is wanted for a crime he will be arrested and indicted."

A spokeswoman for the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Jette Soerensen, told RFE/RL that Hussein's rights as a POW do not preclude his being handed over to an Iraqi court, once the country regains sovereignty, if he were to be charged with war crimes or crimes against humanity. The internationally recognized Geneva Conventions require that POWs be tried for crimes by the foreign power which wins a war, or another sovereign state which is a party to the convention -- a condition designed to protect POWs from arbitrary justice.

Both U.S. and Iraqi officials have said that they consider it psychologically important for Iraqis to try their former leader.

Ammar al-Shabandar puts the argument this way: "The toppling of Saddam was not done by the Iraqis, it was done by a foreign power. So, they really need to feel that they are in charge of their destiny and their former leader is tried because of crimes against them, not for political reasons, not for WMDs [weapons of mass destruction], and not for international politics."

The U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) this week again demanded that Hussein be tried by an Iraqi tribunal.

IGC Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told the pan-Arab daily "Asharq al-Awsat" in an interview that "after the formation of a sovereign Iraqi government, we will ask the coalition forces to change [his POW] classification and hand him over to the Iraqi government ahead of his trial."

Iraq adopted a war crimes tribunal statute on 10 December which provides for five-man tribunals to judge those accused. Judges are due to be appointed to the tribunal at the end of March.

The prospect that Hussein could be tried by a new Iraqi government has raised concerns among some human-rights organizations over whether he would receive a fair trial. They have also warned that the Iraqi legal system's provision for capital punishment brings it into conflict with the values of EU countries like Britain and Spain that backed the war to topple his regime. The EU states and the United Nations consider execution inhumane.

Speaking shortly after Hussein's capture, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan offered the world's body assistance to assure Hussein gets fair treatment and said any trial 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."

CPA spokesman Senor said this week that Hussein and up to 200 other former regime officials could be judged. He said no date has been set for Hussein's trial but that it will certainly not take place before the Iraqi interim sovereign government takes office.

The former Iraqi leader could face trial for ordering the use of poison gas against Iraqi Kurd civilians in 1988, persecution of the Iraqi Shi'a in the 1980s and 1990s, and for alleged war crimes against Kuwait.