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US Won't Concede Trial to Iraqis
Published on Tuesday, December 16, 2003 by the Long Island, NY Newsday
U.S. Won't Concede Trial to Iraqis
by Timothy M. Phelps and Mohamad Bazzi
 

WASHINGTON -- Against a rising clamor yesterday for swift vengeance administered by Iraqis, the U.S. government is sending a strong signal that it, too, has claims on Saddam Hussein's future.

The Bush administration "reserves the right" to try the fallen Iraqi strongman for crimes against the United States, a senior State Department official said yesterday.


Human-rights groups condemned the idea of a speedy trial, saying it would take at least a year to prepare for a complicated case like Hussein's. They also challenged the legal right of the U.S. occupation to establish the tribunal and the lack of more international as well as Iraqi participation in that process.

In Baghdad, Iraqi leaders pressed the case for an immediate Hussein trial that may in part provide an opportunity for a national catharsis, salving the deep wounds of a country where an estimated 300,000 citizens were murdered by agents of the former regime.

Mouwafaq al-Roubai, a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council who was imprisoned by Hussein, and other council members said they want Hussein to be the first person tried under a war crimes tribunal created last week. Al-Roubai said the trial would begin "within weeks" while others said in the next three to six months. The State Department official said the process would take "some time" and "not weeks."

"This man has killed hundreds of thousands of people," al-Roubai said. "If he has to be killed once, I think he has to be resurrected hundreds of times and killed again."

At a hastily arranged White House news conference, President George W. Bush yesterday refused to commit the United States to handing Hussein over to the Iraqis, saying only that they "need to be very much involved in the process." He indicated that the decision whether to execute Hussein, if he is found guilty of a capital offense, would be up to the Iraqis.

A trial by the United States most likely would be in addition to an Iraqi trial. The State Department official did not rule out the possibility of multiple prosecutions, adding that Kuwait and Iran also have an interest in bringing Hussein to justice. Hussein invaded Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990, allegedly committing war crimes against each.

"If we are in a position to build a case against Saddam, we will take a hard look at that," the State Department official said when asked about a U.S. prosecution. "We reserve the right to do that ourselves."

But members of the Governing Council said they want a quick Iraqi trial - and a quick death sentence that would be carried out as soon the United States hands over power to a transitional Iraqi government at the end of June. The U.S.-led occupation authority has suspended death sentences in Iraq.

Council member Ahmed al-Barak told Iraqi television that a death sentence against Hussein could be handed down before the transfer of power. "The court could sentence Saddam Hussein and execute him later," he said. "The least punishment Saddam Hussein should get is the capital punishment."

"We will get sovereignty on the 30th of June," al-Roubai told reporters. "I can tell you, he could be executed on the 1st of July."

The State Department official would not say what kind of charges the United States was considering. Hussein is alleged to have organized an attempt to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush in Kuwait in 1993. And Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Sunday night that while Hussein is being treated as a prisoner of war, his status could change if it is determined he was involved in the postwar insurgency, suggesting that he might also be tried for the postwar death of U.S. soldiers.

Many Iraqis appeared to agree with the idea of a quick trial - and a quick execution. "I won't feel safe until Saddam is dead," said Amal Saadi, 30, a Baghdad teacher. "I want to see him executed on television so I can be sure that he's finally gone. ... There's no need for a trial. We all know the crimes that he committed."

Human-rights groups condemned the idea of a speedy trial, saying it would take at least a year to prepare for a complicated case like Hussein's. They also challenged the legal right of the U.S. occupation to establish the tribunal and the lack of more international as well as Iraqi participation in that process.

"We would be very concerned to see a speedy trial within weeks or months," said Hanny Megally, of the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York. "The capacity of the Iraqi judiciary is clearly not up to what will be necessary for a major trial. They will need to be brought up to speed."

The law establishing the tribunal calls for Iraqi judges to hear cases presented by Iraqi lawyers, with international experts serving as advisers. That would be starkly different from the United Nations tribunals set up to prosecute war criminals in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. In those courts, international lawyers argue the cases and the decisions are rendered by international judges.

The tribunal will investigate crimes committed from July 17, 1968 - the day the Baath Party came to power in Iraq - until May 1, 2003, when Bush declared major combat over. Hussein became president of Iraq in 1979, but he had wielded influence since the Baathists took power.

The tribunal will hear cases in the regime's mass executions of Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s and its suppression of uprisings by Kurds and Shia Muslims at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.

Human-rights groups, and several U.S. allies, including Britain and Spain, also have criticized the idea of a tribunal that uses the death penalty.

Alistair Hodgett of Amnesty International USA said the tribunal was created without enough consultation with international law experts who, unlike Iraqi judges, have experience in building complex war crimes cases.

Phelps reported from Washington. Bazzi reported from Baghdad.

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.

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