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Iraq: Tribunals To Try Gravest Crimes Of Former Ba'athist Regime

The U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council has announced the creation of a special tribunal to try former members of deposed President Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime for crimes against humanity. The court could bolster public support for the current Iraqi leadership. But international rights groups have expressed concern the authorities may not have enough expertise to conduct the proceedings properly.

Prague, 11 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council this week set up a special tribunal to try former members of the Iraqi Ba'athist regime for crimes against humanity.

The creation of the tribunal, which will be staffed and led by Iraqi nationals, resulted from months of work. It will take many more months before the first trials actually start in Baghdad.

Iraqi Governing Council president Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, in announcing the tribunal yesterday, said it was a historic achievement.

"This court will try cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed from 17 July 1968 [the beginning of Saddam Hussein's rule] till 1 May 2003," al-Hakim said.

The tribunal will initially concentrate efforts on several well-documented atrocities: the mass executions of Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s; the brutal suppression of the Kurdish and Shi'a revolts in the early 1990s; the campaign against the Marsh Arabs; crimes committed in the 1980-1988 war with Iran; and the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

The court will have jurisdiction over Iraqi nationals and residents. Judges will be Iraqi citizens to be appointed by the Governing Council after nomination by a council of judges.

Officials say rules and procedures will follow Iraqi principles of criminal law and prevailing international norms. International advisers would play a role in helping judges and prosecutors.

Al-Hakim said the U.S. administration in Iraq has agreed to hand over the most-wanted suspects now in U.S. custody. He said, however, the tribunal would not be allowed to become a court of political revenge.

Council member Ahmad Chalabi said former leader Saddam Hussein would be among those accused and, if caught, would stand before the tribunal.

The top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, hailed the tribunal as a "very significant" move. He argued there is a real interest among all Iraqis in seeing the most monstrous crimes from the previous regime prosecuted and the perpetrators brought to justice.

Since the ouster of Hussein's regime, officials have announced the discovery of some 260 suspected mass graves, which could contain up to 300,000 bodies.

International human rights groups -- while welcoming in principle a move to prosecute the crimes of the past -- have expressed concern about the way the court was formed and how effectively it will operate in practice.

A statement from the rights group Amnesty International said the U.S. administration in Iraq -- as an occupying power -- did not have the proper authority under international humanitarian law to set up such a court.

Amnesty also said it was worried the tribunal would authorize the use of the death penalty, since it is part of the Iraqi criminal code.

Another rights group, Human Rights Watch, said it was concerned that Iraqi judges may not have sufficient experience to deal with long and complicated trials. The director of the International Justice Program at the New York-based Human Rights Watch is Richard Dicker. He tells RFE/RL, "After 30 years of Saddam Hussein in power there is no experience on the part of judges and lawyers in conducting fair trials, in conducting any complex criminal trials. The Iraqi judiciary is going to be bearing the responsibility for some of the most complicated criminal trials you could have. We had urged much more international involvement."

Dicker says in spite of Iraqi statements to the contrary, there's a danger the proceedings could devolve into Iraqi show trials, and that they would not foster what he called respect for the genuine rule of law.

"Our concern is these trials could degenerate into political show trials aimed at just convicting individuals who had been part of the 'ancient regime.' [They would] make a political point and then at the end of the process -- through the imposition of the death penalty -- exact [a punishment] through what we believe to be cruel and inhuman treatment. It will not foster respect for genuine rule of law. It will send a message that courts are an instrument of political rule and in this case, a revenge," Dicker said.

Dicker says some of the negatives of the tribunal system could be corrected by more involvement of international expertise. He points to other similar tribunals established with varying degrees of UN and international participation in East Timor, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and the former Yugoslavia.

"What they all had was the benefit of international participation and involvement. What's distinct about the Iraq court launched yesterday is that it was done deliberately, perhaps, without any genuine international participation and involvement. I think that will only undermine the credibility and the legitimacy of this effort," Dicker said.