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Iraq: Western Governments Can Provide Evidence To Indict Saddam

The regime of Saddam Hussein has frequently been accused of crimes against humanity, and a U.S.-backed effort is under way to bring top officials to trial. In the third part of a three-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at what Western governments can do to increase the campaign's chances of success.

Prague, 24 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- As in every effort to bring criminals to justice, the campaign to indict Iraqi leaders for human rights crimes depends on getting foolproof evidence of wrongdoings.

But because many of the crimes were conducted as military campaigns, some of the best evidence may exist only as intelligence gathered by Western governments. And such information is often classified as secret, making it inaccessible to civilian organizations.

That raises a question which some of the groups in the indictment campaign are already facing. Can they get the evidence they need to bring Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to trial without substantially more help and cooperation from Western government agencies than they receive now?

The experience of one of the five groups cooperating in the campaign -- the International Monitoring Institute, or IMI -- illustrates the problem.

IMI, based in Los Angeles, specializes in gathering photographic and video materials that document human rights abuses. The group has been active in collecting footage taken during the war in Bosnia and supplying it to journalists and academics for historical purposes. And it has provided access to its files to prosecutors at the international tribunal in The Hague which is trying war criminals from the Bosnian conflict.

RFE/RL spoke with an International Monitoring Institute official who uses the pseudonym Robert Thomas. He said that some of the most valuable visual evidence of war crimes is aerial and satellite surveillance, which can pinpoint mass graves or the movement of weaponry aimed at civilians.

Our correspondent asked Thomas, whose group has begun approaching U.S. government agencies to obtain aerial images of Iraq, whether the agencies have been forthcoming with such data. Thomas says:

"Not yet. But there is stuff available that is non-classified, and we are starting to look at that. I think that it is just a matter of convincing them at this point that this stuff is useful, convincing them of our mission. They are willing to talk about it, yes."

But he says there is no sign that classified imagery -- which might provide the best documentation of crimes -- also could be made available:

"We have been thinking about the use of aerial photography ... as showing how the regime has moved evidence of chemical or nuclear weapons ... potentially showing evidence of mass graves, things like that. You know, that is the kind of stuff that, so far from what I am hearing, is very classified. I imagine it would exist and would be very valuable, but so far as I have been able to ascertain it is not going to be given to us."

Another area where the help of Western governments would be welcome is in obtaining laboratory evidence that could unequivocally prove that chemical -- and possibly biological -- weapons were used by Saddam's regime against the Kurds in northern Iraq in the late 1980s.

Mike Amitay is director of the Washington Kurdish Institute in Washington, D.C., and an expert on the history of those incidents.

He says that most of what is currently known about the attacks against civilians is eyewitness evidence. But forensic -- or laboratory -- testing has never been done to confirm the accounts. Amitay says:

"There were up to 200 villages which were attacked with chemical and possibly biological and radiological weapons in Iraqi Kurdistan. This was in a period from April 1987 to August of 1988, and we really don't know exactly what combination of weapons were used during these attacks."

He continues:

"It is mostly eyewitness [evidence]. There have been some international medical experts who have visited the region and who have seen mustard gas burns and respiratory problems. And 10 years, 12 years now after the attack there are high incidences of cancer and congenital malformations in children and a lot of problems with infertility ... and that certainly also is likely to be attributable to various chemical and other agents used during these attacks. But there is no direct evidence, and it would require something of an international effort to do the testing needed to determine without a doubt what agents were used and in what combination."

Doing forensic testing would require detailed knowledge of chemical and biological weaponry, and other resources that only governments and large international organizations possess. But so far, none have come forward with plans to initiate such research.

The lack of such evidence does not mean the indictment campaign against Saddam cannot succeed. But it will -- like the reluctance of Western governments to provide classified material -- make the road harder and longer.

The campaigners say that if their campaign is to succeed, private individuals or groups that have evidence will have to come forward and contribute it to the indictment campaign. As such public support for the case against Saddam grows, so too may the readiness of government agencies to open their files and research facilities to the effort.

(This concludes the three-part series.)