Thursday, July 1, 2004

Ousted dictator Saddam Hussein appears in a Baghdad court today to be formally charged with war crimes committed by his regime over more than two decades in power.

Trials for Saddam and 11 top lieutenants will be an early rite of passage for Iraq’s newly sovereign government, which has made the case against Saddam its first order of business since it formally assumed power Monday.

Ironically, the special tribunal set up to try Saddam will rely heavily on a 1971 penal code that was adopted when Saddam was Iraq’s brutal internal security chief. The criminal law was nominally in force throughout his 24-year reign.

In Baghdad, Salem Chalabi, the director of the Iraqi Special Tribunal, met yesterday with Saddam and 11 top lieutenants at a U.S. detention center to inform the defendants in one-on-one meetings of their rights and prepare them for a formal reading of the charges expected today.

“The first step has happened,” Mr. Chalabi, nephew of one-time U.S. ally Ahmed Chalabi, told reporters in Baghdad. “I met with [Saddam] earlier today to explain his rights and what will happen.”

An aide to Mr. Chalabi told the Agence France-Presse news service that the 67-year-old Saddam, noticeably thinner after seven months in U.S. custody, stiffly acknowledged the tribunal chief and identified himself as “the president of the Republic of Iraq.”

He refused to stand when the tribunal delegation interviewed him, the aide reported. The session lasted just five minutes.

Others who met individually with Mr. Chalabi to learn of their court date included Ali Hassan al-Majid, the notorious “Chemical Ali” who oversaw Iraqi chemical weapons attacks, and Tariq Aziz, a former deputy prime minister and international spokesman for the regime.

Al-Majid was “shaking” during his interview, Mr. Chalabi said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said the fledgling Iraqi government had taken legal control of Saddam and the other defendants, marking the ousted leader’s shift from U.S. prisoner of war to criminal defendant under Iraqi law. Mr. Allawi said the defendants would remain in the physical custody of the U.S. military until Iraq’s government has the facilities to secure them.

Iraqi officials said today’s court session, held inside the tightly guarded green zone, will be filmed for later public release. The trials themselves are expected to be televised live, but are not expected to start before the end of this year, with lesser figures perhaps being prosecuted before Saddam.

U.S. and international legal experts say the 1971 Iraqi criminal code provides some basic protections for the accused, including bans on coerced confessions and illegal searches and procedures for appeal and review of death penalty sentences.

But American legal advisers at the just-disbanded Coalition Provisional Authority approved orders last year significantly expanding the rights of tribunal defendants, adding a presumption of innocence, an unconditional right against self-incrimination and a guarantee of legal counsel. None of those rights were spelled out in the 1971 code.

The 1971 code lacks many of the individual rights afforded under U.S. and British law.

One section of the code says no illegal or coercive means can be used to extract testimony, but another part says the refusal of the defendant to answer questions “will be considered evidence against the defendant.”

Judges can only decide cases based on the evidence presented at the trial, and a trial must be open if the defendant wishes it.

Human rights groups and many governments long complained that Saddam’s regime showed little or no respect for such legal protections, routinely rounding up opponents without trial and torturing and killing prisoners on a vast scale.

Changes to the legal and penal code approved by Saddam a year after he came to power in 1979 will not become part of Iraq’s basic law.

The changes defined a new class of “political” criminal offenses, made it a felony to criticize the government in the media and prescribed the death penalty for those who betray the ruling Ba’ath Party or who “promote or acclaim Zionist principles, including freemasonry, or who associate [themselves] with Zionist organizations.”

Questions remain over the fate of legal reforms adopted under the U.S. occupation.

CPA administrator L. Paul Bremer signed a decree suspending the death penalty in Iraq, but Iraqi President Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer said this week that the new government plans to reinstate it.

Tribunal prosecutors are expected to seek the death penalty for Saddam and a number of his top aides.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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