Rights Groups Concerned Over Saddam Trial

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Amnesty International spent years campaigning oon behalf of Saddam Hussein's victims; now the international human rights group wants to make sure the former dictator gets a fair trial. Amnesty is sending three observers to Saddam's trial, which starts Wednesday in Baghdad. Their mission? “To assess the trial’s fairness,” says Beth Ann Toupin, an Iraq specialist for the human rights group. “And to make clear we are committed to insuring that victims of human right abuses gain access to justice.”

The Iraqi Special Tribunal before which Saddam is to appear will, on Wednesday, begin hearing only one of what could be many cases brought against Saddam. It concerns the torture and murder of 143 people in the town of Dujail in 1982 after some local men attempted to assassinate Saddam. If the former dictator and his seven co-defendants are convicted, Iraqi law calls for them to be executed within 30 days of their last appeal.

Amnesty International, which objects to capital punishment in all cases, contends that a rush to judgment and early executions will cut short the investigations of a long list of atrocities, including the massacres of 3,000 Kurds 1983 and the disappearance of a further 182,000 during the 1988 Anfal campaign, as well as the massacre of tens of thousands of Shiites during a 1991 uprising in southern Iraq and the persecution of the Marsh Arabs throughout the 1990s.

On Monday, Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari, a Shiite whose brother and other male relatives died at the regime’s hands, called for a quick trial and, according to the Associated Press, told reporters, “The Saddam trial is not a research project."

The U.S. government has a $75 million fund to support, equip, train and protect the Iraqi Special Tribunal, and many U.S. lawyers, academics and other advisors have been sent to Iraq to work with the panel. Still, the U.S. insists the tribunal is very much an Iraqi instrument. Last week a senior State Department official indicated that, if Saddam is sentenced to death in the Dujail case, the U.S. will not intervene to insist on a broader fact-finding effort. “It is possible that there could be one trial and … Anfal, the Kurds, all these other cases, would have to be settled in some other forum,” the official said, suggesting this may take the form of "some type of remembrance ceremony or some type of truth ceremony or truth commission that would then be able to tell the story of what happened.”

Ken Hurwitz of Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights) warns that “it will be tremendous setback not only for the Iraqi people but also the international community if the court fails to conduct its proceedings in a credible manner that persuades the Iraqi people and the international community that it has been fair, that those responsible for some of the worst crimes of the 20th century are in fact the ones who have been convicted and that they in fact did commit those crimes.”

As soon as the tribunal is gaveled to order, however, Saddam’s lawyers say they will move for a delay in the proceedings so that they can study a vast array of documents amassed by the Iraqi prosecution and provided to the defense team only last month. The tribunal’s reaction, says Hurwitz, will be the first test of its impartiality. Such a motion would normally be considered justified in a U.S. court because of the volume of the documents to be reviewed. If the Iraqi judges deny it, says Hurwitz, "that will raise serious questions of fairness."