- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

BAGHDAD — A U.S. official said yesterday that senior members of Saddam Hussein’s regime could be tried in the Iraqi legal system, one of the strongest affirmations yet of U.S. respect for Iraqi sovereignty.”There is a broad consensus that those who committed the crimes against the Iraqi people should be tried in the Iraqi system,” said Clint Williamson, a U.S. adviser to the newly reconstituted Iraqi Ministry of Justice.”In all probability, a special chamber will be set up in the Iraqi system, composed of Iraqi judges, using Iraqi prosecutors, who will handle this,” he said.Mr. Williamson spoke to reporters in front of Adhamiya Court, Baghdad’s oldest courthouse, which reopened yesterday for the first time since the U.S.-led coalition began bombing Iraq.Thirteen accused murderers, armed robbers, looters and rapists were arraigned yesterday at Baghdad’s two functioning courthouses as Iraq’s legal system tottered back to life. Just steps away, beaming couples dodged television crews to obtain long-deferred marriage certificates.The United States now has in custody 20 of the 55 most-wanted members of Saddam’s regime, as well as numerous lower-ranking officials and military officers. It is not clear which of them could be tried in the Iraqi courts, or what laws they will be accused of breaking.U.S. officials have spoken only vaguely of how they expect to try the Iraqi elite, whose faces are depicted on a deck of cards distributed to American forces in the field. Pentagon and some State Department officials favor creating a tribunal under U.S. control that conforms to international legal standards.U.S. advisers are also working with legal scholars and experts in Baghdad, Geneva and London to refine Iraq’s 1969 legal code. The basic text is similar to those in most European countries, said Mr. Williamson, and will require only minor alterations.However, analysts say it will be necessary to excise a series of presidential amendments that squelch political speech and other civil rights guaranteed by the Geneva and Hague conventions.One of those amendments decrees that anyone caught insulting the president may be punished with the loss of his tongue.The civil courts were not considered a tool of Saddam’s repression, according to legal advisers, who say political prisoners were funneled through military courts and other tribunals. The civil judges working yesterday were all longtime members of the bench.Security concerns, which have plagued practically every aspect of life in postwar Iraq, have made it more difficult for U.S. advisers to get the Justice Ministry functioning again.In the Adhamiya Court, judges were comfortable with unprecedented public observers in their chambers. But in Bayaa, the second court to open yesterday, the atmosphere was noticeably uneasy.”There is demonstrable fear here, maybe because this is a rougher neighborhood,” said Col. Marc Warren, staff judge advocate to the U.S. Army’s V Corps. “They want us to guard this courthouse. They want us here.”Yesterday’s hearings were to establish whether there was enough evidence to bring the defendants to trial. An investigative judge and a prosecutor reviewed the charges and took the defendants’ statements and should decide their fate within the next few days.Most of yesterday’s 13 defendants — a procession of rough and dazed-looking men in cuffs, were arrested after the war.Several had clearly been injured during their arrest,either by U.S. forces or Iraqi police. U.S. officials said they had all received proper medical attention.In contrast to the tumult in the judges’ chambers, there was joy in the registrar’s office.Eleven couples registered their marriages yesterday morning, taking advantage of the first opportunity to do so since before the war began March 19.After paying a few dollars and filling out some forms, the newlyweds and their families sat with a judge who pronounced the couples married with gifts of hard candy and gardenia blossoms for the brides.Fatin and Atheer al-Asaad said they had delayed their marriage by more than a month.”We were supposed to be married before the war,” Mr. al-Asaad said. “But no party. This is not the time for a celebration.”

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