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Last Updated: Sunday, 20 June, 2004, 10:27 GMT 11:27 UK
Interview with Salem Chalabi
On Sunday, 20 June 2004, Sir David Frost interviewed Salem Chalabi Director Iraqi War Crimes Tribunal

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

DAVID FROST: In ten days time the American-led occupation of Iraq will formally come to an end and the process of establishing a democrat government gets underway.

One of the first challenges for the Iraqi authorities will be to organise the trial of Saddam Hussein who is currently in US custody.

The man in charge of, the head in fact of the Iraqi War Crimes Tribunal is Salem Chalabi, and he joins me right now on the telephone from Baghdad - and let me explain straight away that the reason that he's joining us by telephone is it's important, it's vital, to conceal his identity for security reasons - and that's, and that's really an indication of how dangerous your job is.

SALEM CHALABI: Good morning Sir David. I mean I, it is a difficult job and I mean the danger part is not really the most important part because the danger is, I mean everybody involved in trying to build a democrat Iraq is facing similar challenges.

DAVID FROST: And you have to sleep, for instance, in a different bed every night.

SALEM CHALABI: That's not exactly true but I, I do move around and don't stay in any particular place regularly.

DAVID FROST: And what about the subject of Saddam, when exactly is he going to be handed over to your control?

SALEM CHALABI: Well we're negotiating quite intensively with the coalition forces, we believe it's going to be relatively soon, after the transition - I mean it's not only him, there are a number of other, there are a number of other high-value detainees who will be, you know, arrest warrants will be issued with respect to them and in due course they will hopefully be handed over.

DAVID FROST: So would you say it's a matter, Mr Chalabi, of weeks rather than months, or what?

SALEM CHALABI: I would - I mean I'm, again, not completely just focusing on Saddam Hussein, but I would say with respect to some of the other detainees, a few of them, I would say within weeks.

DAVID FROST: And what about when you get him? I mean one thing the Americans are concerned about of course is, is the security, the secure conditions in which he will be held, which you will be equally concerned about, and then the other problem is finding enough judges who are qualified, since we haven't had a very judicially strong Iraq under Saddam Hussein, find the judges who can do the job.

SALEM CHALABI: On, on the first issue we are working, arrangements, quite closely with the coalition troops on the issue of security and so on.

Clearly as somebody responsible for the tribunal it's my, you know, absolute priority to ensure the security of the detainees as well as those of the judges. On the, on your second question, and the issue of the judges, there were, you know Iraqi judicial system has been, was, was set up by the British back in the Twenties and it's actually is a pretty decent system, it just was played around with by the previous regime.

We, we started the process of making the judiciary independent again and there's now a council of judges that's completely independent of the executive, and we are training judges - I mean there's been a series of training programmes, judges, some of the judges involved in the tribunal have been to the Hague and we're setting up a series of additional training programmes.

I must stress though that the trials themselves will take some time, I mean it will take some time before we get to the trials and therefore we still have some time to train the judges over the next year or so.

DAVID FROST: So, at the same time, though these trials may be held up maybe as much as a year or two, is it possible that you will file the charges against say Saddam Hussein in advance of that so people know what's coming?

SALEM CHALABI: It is possible. I mean the process, our focus right now is on the investigation process and that's what we're doing over and above anything else. So, as a first step we would issue arrest warrants, then the investigations would start properly - they haven't yet - and once they do we will be, I mean in due course over the next few months we will be able to file charges.

DAVID FROST: And what about, Mr Chalabi, the problem that people have mentioned, and you're a brave man and you bear this problem yourself, but that a lot of witnesses and others are unwilling to come forward because they feel they will endanger their own lives by coming forward and testifying against Saddam Hussein or someone else? Is that a problem, the fear factor?

SALEM CHALABI: It is but let me put this in context. We have opened one regional office to take information from witnesses. There are literally hundreds if not thousands that come in on a regular basis trying to give information. I think at this stage, you know, I've had to be careful about expanding our regional offices for this specific reason, we don't want witnesses to come in in the hope of giving information and then putting themselves at risk.

The second issue, is I actually just came out of a two hour meeting this morning, they're setting up a witness protection programme, we have a 30-man team that will be working on this and we have a pretty decent budget for this.

I'm not too concerned about the allegations made, I actually don't even know who made them because they're, clearly the people who made them have not been directly in touch with some of the people willing to testify.

DAVID FROST: Thank you very much for being with us this morning Mr Chalabi. One last simple question, will Saddam face the death penalty?

SALEM CHALABI: The answer is unfortunately not so simple. The, the statute of the tribunal says that for anybody convicted of the penalty of murder, sorry of the crime of murder or rape, they get what Iraqi law prescribes. Ambassador Bremmer has suspended the death penalty.

This suspension will continue until the sovereign Iraqi government makes a decision to lift the suspension.

So an Iraqi government has to affirmatively take that step to lift the suspension. If the suspension imposed by Ambassador Bremmer is lifted, then there is the possibility of the death penalty being imposed, ... any convicted ..

NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.

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