Saddam trial on hold until Iraq stabilises

Fearing for his life, a United States-educated Iraqi assigned to set up the court to try Saddam Hussein works from a secret office and rarely sleeps in the same bed twice.

Salem Chalabi’s daily routine illustrates the atmosphere of fear and intimidation that shadows the six-month-old Iraqi Special Tribunal as it struggles to its feet.

War-crimes experts say that as long as violence prevails in Iraq, the trial of Saddam and at least 100 of his cohorts suspected of committing atrocities against the Iraqi people will have to wait - unless a foreign venue can be found.

"It’s a monumental task, especially in light of the security situation," said Mr Chalabi, 41, a nephew of former Iraqi Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi, who recently had a falling-out with Washington.

Judges are refusing to work for the tribunal after five potential candidates have been killed since Saddam was toppled from power last year. At least half of the court’s first budget - tens of millions of dollars - will go to security alone, Mr Chalabi said in an interview.

"Due to the poor security situation, the assassinations and assaults - judges mostly have fears about that - they are refusing to be members of the court," said Dara Nor al-Din, a Kurdish judge and former member of Iraq’s Governing Council.

Richard Goldstone, the first prosecutor at the United Nations tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, said it will take one year to 18 months to set up a new tribunal, at best.

"I simply don’t see how you can contemplate putting Saddam on trial if there is no security," Mr Goldstone said. "There needs to be security for the defence, judges and witnesses."

The Yugoslav tribunal was established in the Netherlands in 1993 while the Balkan wars were still going on. In Iraq, fighting between insurgents and the occupying coalition troops claims lives each day, making it virtually impossible to send investigators into the field.

Although Iraq insists on trying Saddam itself, Mr Goldstone recommended a court with international judges and prosecutors working alongside Iraqis, a formula used successfully by the UN tribunal for Sierra Leone. He suggested an alternative location in the Arab world, such as the United Arab Emirates.

"After 38 years under Saddam Hussein, it is unlikely there is really a system of prosecutors and judges that could run it alone," Mr Goldstone said.

But Mr Chalabi, who has visited The Hague to see how other tribunals operate, is convinced that Iraqi judges and prosecutors can be trained for the task - which could include imposing the death penalty.

The Baghdad-born Mr Chalabi studied at Yale, Columbia and Northwestern universities in the US and holds degrees in law and international affairs. He said the court does not expect to take custody of Saddam or hold trials anytime soon.

The former Iraq dictator has been held by US forces in an undisclosed location since he was seized last December. The transfer of thousands of Iraqi prisoners from US forces to Iraqi authorities has been a controversial issue since the revelations of abuses by US forces at Abu Ghraib prison. But Mr Chalabi said the suspects would only be turned over to the tribunal "once we are ready - which we are not... once we’ve got the infrastructure - which we don’t".

Michael Scharf, an international law professor involved in a training programme for up to 500 Iraqi judges, said a realistic target date for Saddam’s trial is two years away.

"Eventually, judges, prosecutors and defence counsel will be able to try cases in Iraq. But they won’t be able to start on high-profile cases until the security situation is remedied," he said. "Until that time, the situation in Iraq will be like that of Colombia a decade ago, where the drug cartels intimidated and assassinated judges, witnesses and lawyers, rendering justice impossible to achieve."

Mr Chalabi’s concerns over taking custody of the detainees seem at odds with the view of Britain’s UN ambassador, Emyr Jones Parry, who said last week that the 30 June transfer of power to Iraq’s interim government will include control of prisoners in US custody.

However, Mr Chalabi noted that without consulting the court, US authorities have released up to eight tribunal suspects "who we’ve lost and will never be brought to trial".

He identified three of them as Sa’adoun Hamadi, Iraq’s former parliamentary speaker; Yasser al-Sabawi, a nephew of Saddam accused of murder; and Khalil Ibrahim al-Tikriti, Iraq’s deputy chief of intelligence until 1998.

Mr Chalabi’s tribunal must meet the expectations of the Iraqi people, who are used to swift justice and capital punishment under Saddam.

At the same time, it must convince the international community that Saddam will have a fair trial.

"The problem is that justice delayed is justice denied," Mr Sharf said. "And every day Saddam Hussein remains in custody in Iraq, he serves as a catalyst for insurgency."

[Source: Anthony Deutsch, Baghdad, The Scotsman, 08Jun04]

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War in Iraq
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