BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 August 2007, 20:19 GMT 21:19 UK
High-profile trial divides Iraq
By Mike Wooldridge
BBC News, Baghdad

Ali Hassan al-Majid. File photo
"Chemical Ali" has already been sentenced to death
The sight of key figures in the Saddam Hussein regime in the dock at a new Iraqi High Tribunal trial has provoked a fresh debate among Iraqis about this means of delivering justice.

Saddam Hussein's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid - widely known as Chemical Ali because of the gassing of villages in northern Iraq - is the most prominent defendant in the third trial to be conducted by the tribunal.

He and 14 others are charged with crimes against humanity in connection with the suppression of the Shia uprising that took place in the south of Iraq in 1991 at the end of the Gulf War.

"The fighter Ali Hassan al-Majid" was how he identified himself at the start of what is expected to be another lengthy trial.

'Just punishment'

He and two other defendants might not live to see the end of the proceedings because they have already been sentenced to death in an earlier trial.

Ali Hassan al-Majid
Sultan Hashim al-Tai
Hussein Rashid al-Tikriti
Abd Hamid Mahmoud al-Nasseri
Ibrahim Abdul Sattar al-Dahan
Walid Hamid Tawfik al-Nasseri
Iyad Fatiya al-Rawi
Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan
Abdul Ghafour Fulayih al-Ani
Ayad Taha Shihab al-Douri
Latif Maal Hamoud al-Sabawi
Qais Abdul Razzaq al-Adhami
Sabir Abdul Aziz al-Douri
Saadi Tuma Abbas al-Jabouri
Sufyan Maher al-Ghairiri

If the sentences are upheld on appeal, under Iraqi law the expectation is that they would be carried out within 30 days.

"The people being prosecuted deserve to be executed thousands of times for crimes they committed against the Iraqi people," said a 39-year-old teacher the BBC spoke to in Baghdad.

"They will have the chance to face a fair trial and they are able to defend themselves, so they will see how the new Iraq looks like."

A restaurant owner, 34, said: "This is the court we have been waiting for. Those criminals were behind the killing of tens of thousands of Iraqi people in the south and they made the Iraqis suffer for a long time so they have to get a punishment they deserve."

'Illegitimate court'

But there is equally strong criticism to be heard.

An Iraqi man reads a newspaper about the previous trial of Ali Hassan al-Majid
Many Iraqis are expected to closely follow the trial

A 43-year-old shop owner called the court "a play".

He said it was being directed by the Americans and also the Iranians because Iraq won the war against Iran in the 1980s and a now a new pro-Iranian government in Baghdad was looking for revenge on behalf of Tehran.

He also alleged that the people who were discovered in mass graves were Iranian Revolutionary Guard elements who had come into Iraq to destroy its infrastructure and been killed by the Iraqi army.

A 30-year-old butcher said he regarded the court as "illegitimate because it was established under the occupation".

A student, aged 20, felt it was not the right time for trials of this kind to be taking place because "things are very bad in the country and the people are suffering a lot".

'Significant bearing'

Yet this argument - heard quite commonly during the previous two trials as well - was not persuasive enough for one 30-year-teacher we spoke to.

"I admit that the current conditions are very hard where the security and economic situation is very bad," he said. "But it is Saddam loyalists and their ally al-Qaeda who are behind it."

On day one, the defence team challenged the legitimacy of the trial, as they did in the earlier trials. The judge said he would consider their grievance but proceedings continued.

Some 90 witnesses are expected to testify. They will give their account of the events 16 years ago.

But in Iraq the events of history often have a significant bearing on the attitudes of its different and often fractious communities today.

Once again, the words spoken in one of the most closely guarded courtrooms in the world are being argued over on the streets of Iraq's towns and cities.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific