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The Conflict in Iraq

Hussein Arraignment Set; Iraq Takes Custody Today

June 30, 2004|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Saddam Hussein, the leader of a brutal regime for 35 years, will be transferred to Iraqi legal custody today and publicly arraigned Thursday in connection with crimes against the Iraqi people, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said at his first news conference as head of government.

It will be Iraqis' first glimpse of Hussein since he was captured in December and Americans displayed photographs of the former leader bearded, long-haired and looking disoriented. Eleven former top officials of his Baath Party regime also are to be arraigned.

Hussein is expected to be arraigned on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, as well as other misdeeds, according to lawyers involved in the case. He is likely to be tried for the use of chemical weapons in the 1988 attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, the Anfal massacre of Kurds in the north the same year and crimes related to Iraq's 1980-88 war with Iran and to the violent suppression of a Shiite Muslim uprising in southern Iraq in 1991, among others.

The new interim government's request that the U.S.-led coalition transfer Hussein to Iraqi custody was Allawi's first official act as head of government and seemed designed to underscore to Iraqis that his government, not the old regime, was in control. The move also bolstered the government's standing as compared with the American-led occupation, which had classified Hussein as a prisoner of war rather than a defendant in a criminal proceeding.

"We would like to show the world that the new Iraq government means business and wants to do business and wants to stabilize Iraq.... We want to put this bad period behind us," Allawi said Tuesday.

Though the transfer of custody and arraignment represent the new Iraqi government's commitment to bringing the old one to justice, they are just the first steps in what is likely to be many months and probably a year or more of legal proceedings.

The arraignment will be held in a courtroom before an Iraqi investigative judge who will present the initial charges against Hussein and inform him of his rights, including remaining silent and retaining counsel. Hussein is permitted to hire lawyers from outside Iraq, and there are reports that at least one foreign defense team, from France, might represent him. Under Iraqi law, the government will pay for Hussein's counsel if he is unable to afford the costs.

Among those scheduled to be arraigned with Hussein are former Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz and Ali Hassan Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali," said Salem Chalabi, the executive director of the Iraqi Special Tribunal created to handle the trials. Majid is alleged to have been among those responsible for gassing the Kurds at Halabja.

The arraignment will be televised and is expected to show Hussein and others in chains as they walk into the courtroom to hear the charges -- a dramatic and graphic display of how far from power they have fallen. Once the arraignment is complete, their status will be changed from prisoners of war to criminal detainees under Iraqi law. In general, prisoners of war have fewer rights and aren't charged with a crime.

The detainees will remain in American military custody until Iraqis have a secure prison facility, Allawi said. The concern is that unless the facility is secure, relatives of Hussein's victims might attempt to take justice into their own hands or, alternatively, supporters of the former dictator might attempt to help him escape.

The U.S. government is playing a substantial role in the cases through its Regime Crimes Liaison Office. Lawyers and investigators attached to that office provide legal support for the Iraqis on forensics, exhumations and the entire investigative infrastructure, according to senior U.S. government lawyers here. When it is fully staffed, about 75 foreign lawyers and investigators will be helping to track down evidence and organize the case. Most of the staff is expected to be Americans, but it is hoped that experts from European countries also will be involved in the case.

The extent of European involvement may depend on whether Iraq reinstates the death penalty. In deference to Britain, which forbids the death penalty, L. Paul Bremer III, as the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, suspended it for the period of the occupation. Allawi said the question of reinstating the death penalty was under discussion.

Many Iraqis, including government officials, would like to see it reinstated. At the same time, Iraqi officials want to avoid alienating potential European allies who might be unwilling to lend their expertise to the trial if Hussein or others could face execution.

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