Tampa lawyer to build case against Hussein

Tampa lawyer Greg Kehoe has been picked to serve as the regime crimes adviser in Baghdad, heading up the office that is building criminal cases against Saddam Hussein and his former top advisers.

Kehoe, 49, a former assistant U.S. attorney who has prosecuted Bosnian war crimes, will be leading a group of international specialists who will advise Iraqi judges and prosecutors on how to try leaders of the toppled Hussein regime.

"It's a pretty broad mandate," said Kehoe. "What they've told me is, "Help the Iraqis bring this to a court setting as soon as possible.'"

Kehoe's office will employ dozens of American and international investigators who will scour the former dictator's offices and palaces for evidence of genocide and other atrocities. He will also supervise the exhumation of corpses scattered across the country, presumed victims of Hussein's regime.

"Right now, the conservative estimate is there are approximately 300,000 bodies," Kehoe said. "It's crucial for the stability of the country to have a reckoning, so the country can go forward."

Kehoe, the son of a New York City police officer, is a big-shouldered former rugby player with a booming courtroom voice and a rapid patter seasoned by his childhood in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

Since Attorney General John Ashcroft appointed him to the post early this month, Kehoe has been immersing himself in books about the Middle East. At Borders and Barnes & Noble, he bought every book he could find on Iraq and Islam.

Every day, he says, he fields calls from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., working to organize his Baghdad office, located in the palace where American officials are stationed. He is hiring staff and making sure the office is stocked with computers, fax machines, pencils and paper.

Kehoe, who made a brief trip to Iraq earlier this month, expects to go back in mid May and to work 16-hour days there for six to nine months.

Kehoe said he hopes the tribunals bring an example of the rule of law - and foster citizens' faith in the legal system - in a country bereft of it for decades.

"Our job is to assist the Iraqis, but at the end of the day, it's the Iraqis who have to try these cases," he said.

As a longtime assistant U.S. attorney, Kehoe prosecuted members of the Outlaws motorcycle gang and drug rings in South Florida. In Tampa, he handled high-profile cases involving courthouse corruption, a military spy ring and international money-laundering.

In the early 1990s, he served on a congressional committee investigating the "October Surprise," the purported arms-for-hostages deal with Iran preceding Ronald Reagan's election as president.

For his new post, Kehoe's most relevant experience was his stint at The Hague, Netherlands, where from 1995 to 1999 he served on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The experience culminated in his successful prosecution - after a 25-month trial - of a Croatian general for war crimes.

The general, Tihomir Blaskic, was implicated in a 1993 massacre of Muslim non-combatants, including women and children. While there was no evidence to show Blaskic pulled the trigger himself, Kehoe prosecuted him on a theory of "command responsibility," contending he allowed soldiers to commit the slaughter.

In Iraq, Kehoe's investigators will search for documents that establish the chain of command in Hussein's regime, proving who gave the orders for particular massacres. "The paper is very, very important" in such cases, Kehoe said.

During his time at The Hague, Kehoe lived with his wife, Lonni, and their young daughter in a Dutch coastal town. His daughter is now 7. They will not accompany him to Iraq.

In Baghdad, Hussein and his former underlings could face charges ranging from attacks on civilians in Iraq and Iran to the use of poison gas against the Kurds.

Kehoe's office will compile detailed dossiers on Hussein and his cohorts for the Iraqi Special Tribunal for Crimes Against Humanity, a group of Iraqi judges and prosecutors that is expected to try them in the coming years.

The Bush administration has encouraged using such a domestic tribunal, rather than an international one, in hopes that it will lend legitimacy, in the eyes of the Iraqi people, both to the trials of the toppled rulers and to the country's new government.

Yet the statute that created the Iraqi tribunal in December allows for international specialists such as Kehoe to provide advice and expertise.

"You're dealing with a judicial system which has not been able to perform at a level of credibility for three decades," said David Scheffer, professor of international law at Georgetown University and former ambassador at large for war crimes under President Clinton.

"It is not a legal system that has any experience in investigating atrocity crimes of the kind that Saddam Hussein's regime is clearly implicated in. So the investigative skills and trial preparation skills clearly should be beneficial to the process."

The Iraqi trials promise to be the most-watched event of their kind since the Nuremberg Tribunal hauled Nazis before the world spotlight after World War II. But Hitler killed himself before he could be tried; the Iraqi trials possess the added allure of the dictator's own presence in the defendant's box.

Still, putting Hussein on trial poses dangers. In The Hague, Slobodan Milosevic turned his trial into a forum for railing against his captors. There are worries that Hussein may do the same, embarrassing the United States by invoking its support for Iraq in its war against Iran in the 1980s.

With armed resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq still hot, it is also a dangerous place to hold court. The names of the Iraqi judges and prosecutors appointed to the tribunal have not been divulged for security reasons.

"I think it is extremely risky right now to envision trials of this character taking place in Iraq under the current volatile security situation there," said Scheffer, adding that security concerns contributed to having tribunals for crimes in Rwanda and the Balkans located in other regions.

Part of Kehoe's job will be to ensure there is a secure location where the trials can take place. Right now, Iraqis are refurbishing a courthouse for that purpose.

In Tampa, Kehoe coaches soccer for his daughter's league. He is a partner at the law firm of James, Hoyer, Newcomer and Smiljanich. He recently represented Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder in a case involving plagiarism allegations, and Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt on ethics charges.

Kehoe, a graduate of St. John's University School of Law, said he expects to rejoin the Tampa firm when he returns from Iraq.

"I have every intention of performing my Cincinnatus duties (and) returning to the plow, which is here," Kehoe said, referring to the Roman statesman who was called to lead an army and then returned to his farm.

Kehoe is a well-known face at Four Green Fields, the Irish pub in Tampa. It's tough to find a drink in Iraq, he said, but it's possible to get one at a place called the Green Zone Cafe, named after the heavily defended zone where American officials are stationed.

Kehoe's post in Baghdad will entail a substantial pay cut. Given the five years he spent in The Hague, some would say Kehoe has already paid his dues to the cause of international law.

"I think the world changed after 9/11, and the dues changed," Kehoe said. "Do you stand by and do nothing and ask yourself, "Could I have done something for the United States and the world?' I guess I don't want to live like that."

[Source: By Ch5ristopher Goffard, Times Staff, NY, 29Apr04]

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