- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

BAGHDAD (AP) — Judge Qasem Ayash, one of 100 Iraqi jurists fresh out of a crash course in international law, says it was a waste of time.

“I have been a judge for 32 years, and they are teaching me the ABCs of law? I ought to be teaching them,” the head of the Appellate Court says with contempt after attending the two-week course organized by the U.S. Defense Strategy for International Studies.

Has he ever tried a war criminal? No.

Would he sit on a tribunal trying Saddam Hussein and others? No.

Judge Ayash said several judges thought to be working with the Americans have been murdered. The fear among jurists is that Saddam’s supporters would kill them just for sitting in judgment on the ousted dictator.

This is exactly what worries human rights groups and international jurists. They fear that the Iraqi judiciary, after four decades under the thumb of the Ba’ath regime, has neither the experience nor the expertise to conduct a complex trial for crimes against humanity. They say only a United Nations-led tribunal has the international legitimacy and can guarantee fair trials.

Judge Ayash, 62, doesn’t see the problem. “They will bring the accused; they will bring his file. The judge reads it carefully and decides whether he ought to be charged or not,” he said.

“There’s nothing to it. It’s like trying any other criminal case.”

No, it’s not that simple, say those with experience in war-crimes trials.

Typically, they say, trials before Iraqi criminal courts lasted a few days — sometimes just a morning, or even an hour. And courts often handled 20 to 30 cases a day.

Iraqi judges and lawyers, as well as U.S. officials here, insist Iraqis can handle it because they’re recovering a long tradition of independence and impartiality — sometimes even under Saddam’s repressive rule. And if they need any outside help, they say, they’ll ask for it.

Three days before Saddam was captured by U.S. forces on Dec. 13, the Iraqi Governing Council announced the creation of a war-crimes tribunal to try former members of Saddam’s Ba’ath regime on cases stemming from mass executions of Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s, as well as the suppression of uprisings by Kurds and Shi’ite Muslims after the 1991 Gulf war.

The Iraqi statute, drafted by Iraqi and American lawyers, emulates the International Criminal Court and provides for foreign judges to join the bench if the Governing Council so wishes.

But Iraqi officials say they’re determined to be in charge and to seek outside help in areas where they lack expertise, such as in pre-trial investigations and forensic data.

“The presence of foreign judges will undermine [Iraqi] sovereignty and would undercut the value of the Iraqi judiciary,” said Iraq’s justice minister, Hashim Abdul-Rahman al-Shalabi.

Human rights groups are voicing concern that the statute allows for the death penalty, and Judge Ayash isn’t the only judge who is declining to take part for fear of his safety. But Iraqi officials close to the Governing Council say extensive protection is planned for witnesses and court officials.

Salem Chalabi, legal adviser to the Governing Council, said the judges are beginning to grasp how different the tribunal will be from what they are used to. “I told them, ‘You are going to have six hours a day, day in, day out,’” he said.

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