Look for drama on first day of Saddam trial.

The long-awaited trial of Saddam Hussein for crimes committed during his more than two decades in power will begin this week in the Iraqi High Criminal Court.

The Oct. 19 trials of former President Hussein and seven other high officials offer Iraqi society the opportunity to bring to account many of those responsible for some of the worst crimes of the 20th century, and create a full public record of the massive human rights violations perpetrated during Saddam Hussein's rule.

Sixty years of international experience, beginning with the Nuremberg trials, has shown the importance of legal accountability as a key element in the reconstruction of societies emerging from dictatorship, repression, and armed conflict.

For this exercise to be fully effective, Human Rights First urges the Iraqi High Criminal Court to operate independently, impartially, and transparently, with full respect for the rights both of the defendants and victims.

The Court's principal duty is to the people of Iraq. It must endeavor to satisfy the Iraqi public, as well as the international community, that the trials are fair and that convictions are supported by overwhelming, credible evidence. Only in this way can the Court effectively reaffirm to the world that torture, "disappearance," and murder can never be justified; and that those with command responsibility will ultimately be held criminally responsible for the crimes of those acting under their authority.

Trials of those responsible for crimes against humanity and other grave human rights crimes can help to stop cycles of violence motivated by revenge and retribution, and they can help lay a foundation for the return of the rule of law in countries recovering from periods of brutal, violent use of force. They can also increase the effectiveness of other international efforts to end conflicts, and help deter future crimes. It is essential that the trials be consistent with recognized international fair trial standards, must give voice to the victims of human rights crimes and an opportunity for witnesses and survivors to provide evidence and confront the accused. The Court must guarantee the security of witnesses, both survivors of human rights crimes and witnesses for the defense. The proceedings must establish criminal responsibilities and penalties in a way that fully exposes the facts to the light of day and advances justice and respect for the rule of law. If the Court succeeds, its legacy will serve as a firm foundation for construction of a fair and just Iraqi criminal justice system.

Under Saddam Hussein's rule, the Ba'ath regime, the Iraqi government was responsible for the torture and deliberate killings of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, as well as massive war crimes against Iranians and Kuwaitis. One of the worst crimes within Iraq was the 1987-1988 Anfal campaign, a brutal operation to destroy hundreds of Kurdish communities in the north. Iraqi forces systematically killed as many as 100,000 Kurdish men, women, and children in a crime now generally acknowledged to have constituted genocide.

Another wave of severe repression followed a revolt by Shi'a marsh Arabs in the south in 1991, in the wake of the Gulf War. In that campaign, villages were shelled and burned and ancient marshes drained, resulting in thousands of deaths, forced displacements and the destruction of marsh Arab communities.

The Iraqi Court will conduct separate trials for crimes committed in key incidents, beginning with the 1982 killing of an estimated 150 people in the village of Dujail, in reprisal for a failed assassination attempt on Saddam Hussein.

In preparing for this case, investigative judges and prosecutors have worked for over two years, preparing a file of two million documents, including testimony from at least 7,000 witnesses; yet under the current Court rules, Saddam Hussein's lawyers are only being given 45 days to examine the prosecution's materials before proceedings begin. The Court announced that evidence about the Dujail case was delivered to the defense on August 10, 2005, but defense lawyers told the Washington Times on September 28 that they had just been handed additional documents. Defense lawyers stated they would seek to delay the proceedings.

According to reports from the New York Times, Knight Ridder, and other media, the Iraqi High Criminal Court is under pressure from some Iraqi government officials to hold a quick trial and to impose and carry out punishment - widely expected to be execution - very rapidly. If true, this raises a host of concerns. Among these is the possibility that Saddam Hussein would not face prosecution for many of the most serious crimes committed under his command, and there would not be an accounting to victims and history for the consistent pattern of gross human rights violations committed while he was in power.

Concerns regarding physical security of the judges and other Court personnel may be one motive for the apparent press to conclude proceedings quickly. Yet at least one important critic, former Ba'athist Saleh al-Mutalk, a leader of the Sunni delegation in recent negotiations about the draft Iraqi constitution, has accused the government of seeking a speedy trial to "win election-season political points" in anticipation of the upcoming National Assembly elections, on December 15, 2005. Fear of a drawn-out process that Saddam Hussein could use to score propaganda points against the government and the U.S.-led military coalition also probably plays a role.

None of these factors, however, can justify short-circuiting the accountability and truth-telling functions of the Court. Human Rights First urges the Iraqi High Criminal Court to undertake its work expeditiously but thoroughly and to conduct the proceedings in a manner so as to create a public record that will stand as a lasting memorial to truth and justice.

[Source: Statement by Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights), New York, 17Oct05]

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