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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 9 April, 2003, 15:52 GMT 16:52 UK
Post-war Iraq: war crimes trials?
Paul Reynolds
News Online world affairs correspondent

Saddam Hussein
Iraqi people will be allowed to impose their own justice

If they are taken alive, Saddam Hussein and a handful of his top officials face a trial in an Iraqi court.

There will not be an international tribunal of the kind set up after the massacres in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

Saddam Hussein, sons and company will not follow Slobodan Milosevic into a Dutch prison and an international court in The Hague.

Instead they will be put on trial in front of a panel of Iraqi judges made up from those not tainted by a role in the old system. There could also be judges from other countries in the Arab world.

Decision quite deliberate

The decision, taken by the United States and supported in principle by the British government, is quite deliberate. It is designed to allow Iraqi people to impose their own justice.

We believe that it must have some indigenous roots to reinstate the rule of law
US Ambassador for war crimes Pierre Richard Prosper

The American official in charges of war crimes issues, Ambassador Pierre Richard Prosper said: "We believe that it must have some indigenous roots to reinstate the rule of law."

There could also be other trials, either in US federal courts, or courts martial, for alleged crimes committed during the current war.

These include breaking the Geneva Conventions by mistreating prisoners of war and using subterfuge such as misusing flags of surrender. Cases are now under investigation.

There will no role for the recently formed International Criminal Court. It is not recognized by the United States.

Talks with exiles

The plan to have an Iraqi court try the top leadership emerged from discussions which started last July between the US State Department and Iraqi lawyers in exile or opposition.

Former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic
Slobodan Milosevic is on trial in an international court in The Hague

Charles Forrest, chief executive of Indict, an organisation based in London dedicated to bringing Saddam Hussein and his associates to trial, said that the Iraqi lawyers were "adamant that this should be done as an Iraqi project with Iraqi and other Arab judges.

They really feel that this is possible and that it would be the most effective way of meeting the demands for justice."

The charges, Mr Forrest said, would probably be selective but would include major crimes like the gassing of the population of Halabja, and some cases of murder and torture.

"It is important to focus on a small number of symbolic cases," he told BBC News Online. "Otherwise, the process gets bogged down as it has in the international tribunals where it can go on for years.

A Truth Commission could take care of the historical aspects while a trial is conducted quickly."

Possible death penalty

They really feel that this is possible and that it would be the most effective way of meeting the demands for justice
Charles Forrest, chief executive, Indict

As for penalties, Mr Forrest said: "The Iraqi people will not accept that Saddam Hussein or some torturer will escape the death penalty." Such a penalty would not be available in an international tribunal.

The prospect for Iraqi-led trials, though, has been criticised by Human Rights Watch in New York.

It said: "A tribunal composed of Iraqi jurists selected by the United States would not have the capacity to adjudicate the staggering scope of crimes by the Iraqi government, including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

"The local solution proposed by the US government would be a mistake."

The local solution proposed by the US government would be a mistake
Human Rights Watch

The group said that it would be difficult to organise a fair trial: "For example, a judicial panel composed of victims of the Baath regime, such as Kurds or Shiites, could not be considered impartial."

Instead, Human Rights Watch called for an international tribunal, perhaps with Iraqi legal figures taking part as well.

At the same time, the American and British conduct of the war is going to be the examined at a hearing - called a "War Crimes Tribunal" by the organisers - in London in May.

Phil Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers said that it would concentrate on the weapons systems and methods used in the war.

These included attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure and the use of cluster bombs which, he said, were "inherently incapable of distinguishing between civilian and military targets as required by the Geneva Conventions."

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