By Kathryn Westcott
Two years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the special tribunal set up to prosecute members of the former regime is getting ready to conduct its first trials.
Former regime members may go on trial in the next few months
Charges prepared by the tribunal's investigating judges were referred to trial judges at the beginning of March.
These concern high-ranking Baath party officials, who, it is believed could face trial in the next two months.
Testimony from these first trials may be used to firm up the cases against Saddam Hussein and 11 of his senior officials, including his cousin, Ali Hasan Majid - better known as Chemical Ali for his role in poison gas attacks against the Kurds - and former vice-president Taha Yassin Ramadan.
Although the preliminary charges faced by Saddam Hussein have been outlined, none of these top defendants has yet been formally indicted and these trials are unlikely to begin before next year.
Tariq Aziz - Deputy PM
Taha Yassin Ramadan - Vice-President
Sultan Hashim Ahmad al-Tal - Defence Minister
Ali Hasan al-Majid - "Chemical Ali"
Watban Ibrahim Hassan al-Tikriti - Saddam Hussein's half-brother - intelligence minister
Officials want the trials to be televised so that justice can be seen to be done.
However, human rights experts say they have been widely discredited, even before they have started.
New York-based Human Rights Watch believes they could be a "wasted opportunity to put Saddam and his henchmen on trial in a manner that has credibility in the eyes of the world".
"We are concerned about the weakness of the statute of the tribunal that was set up to conduct the trials," Richard Dicker, Human Rights Watch's director of international justice, told the BBC News website.
The tribunal was established in December 2003 by the Iraqi Governing Council, under the authorisation of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
Human Rights Watch objects that it is not bound by rules forbidding the use of confessions extracted under torture, and does not require guilt to be proven beyond reasonable doubt.
Mr Dicker also raises concerns about the Iraqi judges' lack of experience of highly complicated and politically charged cases,
and says it would be better to have an international tribunal composed of international and Iraqi judges, supported by the United Nations.
"I hope that the new Iraqi government will take a hard look at this and rethink their approach," he said.
He said international experts were acting only as advisers rather than participating directly in the process, largely as a result of pressure from the US administration, which did not want the trials to be an international effort.
Secrecy shrouds cases
Saddam Hussein's lawyers have said they will question the legitimacy of the tribunal. The argument centres on the belief that the tribunal violates Geneva Convention rules that limit what occupying powers are allowed to do.
Another concern raised by human rights experts is what they describe as the defendants' lack of regular contact with their lawyers. The 12 accused are legally in the custody of the Iraqi interim government but are physically in the custody of the occupying forces.
Saddam Hussein's whereabouts are unconfirmed
Saddam Hussein's first meeting with a lawyer took place on 16 December 2004, nearly six months after his first appearance in court and almost exactly a year after he was captured.
The lawyer was blindfolded before being taken to the meeting, which was held at an unknown location in Baghdad.
It is widely believed that the former Iraqi leader is being held at Camp Cropper, a US base with a high security prison at Baghdad airport, but this has never been confirmed and other reports have suggested he is being held outside the country.
An Iraqi government minister has said he whiles away his time writing poetry, tending his garden and reading the Koran.
After his first court appearance, the US military attributed his gaunt appearance to an exercise regime that had enabled him to lose 5kg (12lb) since his capture in 2003.
Last autumn, he underwent a hernia operation at a Baghdad hospital.
Afterwards, a government minister said he was in "good health" - although he is reported to have been suffering from other nagging health problems, including high blood pressure and a prostate infection.
The special tribunal comprises about 30 specially appointed judges. Only one judge's name has been revealed for security reasons - in March, one of them was assassinated.
There are about 400 other people involved in the tribunal, including international lawyers working in an advisory role, investigators sifting tons of papers, and researchers.
In a recent interview, Iraq's former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said no date had been set to try Saddam Hussein or his officials, but Iraqi authorities were "determined to do it as soon as possible".
He said that trials had to be conducted according to "international norms" and that the country had been working on training judges and building up the "capabilities of the judicial system".
Michael P Scharf, an international law professor at Case Western University in Cleveland who has helped train some of the judges, told the Los Angeles Times that the tribunal had been studying the work of international courts.
He said the judges had received training from legal experts in London and had held courtroom rehearsals in Italy and the Netherlands.
They "are doing the best they can with a tough situation," he said.
But when Saddam Hussein and the other prisoners go on trial, the tribunal itself will be in the dock.