December 15, 2003
New York: An international row over where Saddam Hussein should face justice began yesterday, with Iraq’s U.S.-backed leaders vowing to try him and human rights groups saying the former dictator will not get a fair trial in an Iraqi court.
The “Butcher of Baghdad” could face the death penalty if tried in Iraq’s new war crimes court, established just last week by the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.
Life imprisonment is the worst he will face if convicted by a United Nations like those former Balkans strongman Slobodan Milosevic and suspects in Rwanda genocide.
George W. Bush, the U.S. President, said in his address yesterday Saddam will “face the justice he denied to millions,” but not did specify where.
The lack of precision raised speculation that the United States may hold on to the former dictator, perhaps out of concern he has information that could embarrass Washington.
But announcements by key U.S. allies suggest Saddam will end up in an Iraqi court.
Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, said it will now be up to the Iraqi people to decide Saddam’s fate. As Mr. Bush’s chief partner in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, Mr. Blair frequently co-ordinates his comments with Washington.
In addition, Washington did not contradict a statement by Ahmed Chalabi, one of the Governing Council’s most visible members, who said the ousted leader will be tried in public in Iraq.
Indeed, Washington demonstrated its backing for the new Iraqi war crimes court when the Council announced its establishment last Wednesday.
In an extraordinary move, Paul Bremer, the U.S. civil administrator in Iraq, temporarily transferred his power to the Council to allow it to formally create the statute for the tribunal.
Washington has opposed UN involvement in war crimes justice for Iraq. A UN court would have to be created by the 15-member Security Council, where France, Russia and Germany denied the United States and Britain UN backing for the war.
Saddam cannot be brought before the UN’s new permanent war crimes tribunal, the International Criminal Court. While Saddam’s Baathist Party came to power in 1968, and he became president in 1979, the ICC cannot take cases that predate its creation on July 1, 2002.
Iraq is also not a signatory to the court, and the United States withdrew its signature in May 2002, citing concerns of eventual anti-American bias.
A trial of Saddam would almost certainly focus on whether this regime still had programs aimed at developing weapons of mass destruction.
If he reveals such programs, the Bush administration would be vindicated in its initial argument that Saddam’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction rendered him a threat to the world.
But even if the failure to find any evidence of weapons programs so far is because Saddam did not have any, as he claimed while in power, a trial would almost certainly produce mounds of other evidence of atrocities that occurred under his rule.
It is the extent of those atrocities – estimates say Saddam’s henchmen murdered between 300,000 and 500,000 Iraqis – that the Bush administration is now using as justification for the war.
Indict, a pressure group that has gathered evidence for years about Iraqi atrocities, says Saddam, members of his family and other Iraqi officials are guilty of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture.
Far from embarrassing Washington, an eventual public trial could cause red faces for the likes of France, historically Iraq’s best friend in the West, and Russia, which inherited and maintained the Soviet Union’s Cold War ties.
One unresolved issue came to light last month when the Washington Post reported that the French and Russian governments may have secretly assured Saddam in late 2002 and early this year that they could block an invasion with their vetoes and other delaying tactics at the Security Council.
The Post cited officials familiar with the interrogation of Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s former deputy prime minister.
France and Russia both deny that any contacts had taken place.
The Washington Times reported in May that, following Saddam’s fall, the French government gave members of his regime passports that would allow them to enter Europe and escape capture by coalition forces in Iraq.
France called the allegation “totally unfounded.”