A trial where it matters

December 16, 2003

THE IRAQI people deserve justice. That's the beginning and the end of the question about what to do with Saddam Hussein.

Where to find it? Not in The Hague, not in Jordan, not in Turkey, not in U.S. District Court in Virginia, not in Guantanamo. Only in Iraq itself.

How to find it? Through the establishment of a tribunal that is:

Fair, however much the thought of being "fair" to the former despot seems puny and inadequate.

Legitimate, in the sense that it is recognizably independent and respected by the various wielders of power in Iraq, and that its task is not to score political points but to lay out a record of crimes committed, through testimony and other evidence, and to dispense punishment.

Credible, meaning that it is up to the job.

It is vitally important that Saddam Hussein's crimes be elaborated in a permanent and scrupulous record. When the charges against him are shown to be incontrovertible, he will be sunk -- not only in the court of law, but in the court of world opinion, Middle East opinion, and Iraqi public opinion. The verdict of history will be against him.

But railroad him? That would serve neither his victims nor his foes, and would offer him the mantle of martyrdom in his own country and abroad. It would be the beginning of a legend.

The tension in creating a fair tribunal comes down to this: To be legitimate, it must be essentially an Iraqi institution, but to be credible it must tap foreign (meaning Western) expertise.

Iraq has no history of free or independent or, for that matter, truth-seeking courts. It is not patronizing Iraqi lawyers or judges to point out that the experience and resources needed to build what will be a gigantic legal case do not exist within the country.

The most logical course, then, would be the creation of an Iraqi tribunal with an international component, formally sanctioned by the United Nations. This would, in fact, be somewhat similar to a tribunal already established in Sierra Leone. Other tribunals have been constituted differently, but were set up to deal with vastly different circumstances -- the disintegration of Yugoslavia, for instance, or the atrocities of the Third Reich. In Iraq, although both Iran and Kuwait have legitimate legal claims against Mr. Hussein, the key element in his trial must be the provision of justice for the Iraqi people themselves -- and they must see justice being done. This demands an Iraqi court.

A full exploration of Mr. Hussein's crimes would necessarily include the American backing he received throughout the 1980s. Let that, too, be put on the record.

There would, finally, be one other hugely important benefit: The successful completion of a fair, legitimate and credible trial would go a long way toward establishing faith and trust in the new Iraqi government that sponsored it.

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