The Trial Of A Tyrant

Justice: Finding a location, the judges, and legal precedent to try Saddam Hussein are among the many issues that must be tackled.

December 21, 2003|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The trial of Saddam Hussein will not only determine the future of the deposed dictator, it will also have a great influence on the future of Iraq, laying the foundation for its legal system while helping to write the history of three decades of darkness, telling the story that Iraqis will take into their future.

This trial is so important that it is no surprise it is a microcosm of the problems and possibilities that accompany almost every aspect of the United States' occupation.

Bringing Hussein to justice must be a delicate balancing act between unilateral action and international involvement, between respect for Iraqi sovereignty and insistence on appropriate standards of jurisprudence, between recognizing the realities of a sketchy security situation and not being paralyzed into inaction.

Basic decisions remain. Where will the trial be held? Under whose auspices? Who will be its judges? Will the death penalty be a possible punishment? How quickly can a trial get under way without seeming to be a rush to judgment? How long can it be delayed and still be seen as bringing Hussein to justice? How far down in Hussein's Baathist hierarchy will these trials reach? The list goes on.

Early remarks from the Bush administration indicate preference for a trial in Iraq, run by Iraqis. This does not surprise Michael Van Alstine, a professor of international law at the University of Maryland School of Law.

"This could be a cathartic moment in terms of forming a functioning legal system, to have a trial that tries and convicts Hussein with appropriate, fair legal procedures," he says. "There are also serious downsides to doing it in Iraq. If it does go wrong, it could certainly backfire easily."

And there are many ways it could go wrong - if it turns from a respected legal proceeding into a political show; if it does not live up to international judicial standards; or, perhaps most devastating, if a bomb goes off in the courtroom, or if witnesses or lawyers or judges are killed.

"If there is peace and security, I would support having a trial in Iraq," says Richard Goldstone, the South African judge who was the first prosecutor of the United Nations' War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. "I always believe trials should take place as close to the scene of the crime as possible. That is important to the victims and victims are your most important customers in this situation.

"But you know you can't have this sort of trial going on if there are car bombs going off outside the courtroom," he says. "You need a calm setting for judges, prosecutors and defense counsel. You also can't have thousands outside the court baying for blood."

Goldstone says it is most important that any trial be scrupulously fair. "It can't be a rushed business. There is only one way of conducting a fair trial and to do it properly takes time," he says. "It takes a least a year to craft an indictment, more time to prepare a defense. I can't see this thing happening overnight."

Goldstone and others wonder whether, after decades of dictatorship, Iraq has enough of a legal infrastructure to put on such a trial. "I can see some combination of Iraqi and international judges, perhaps some from other Islamic countries," he says.

As for the location, it is hard to come up with a neighboring country that would be suitable or willing to host such a security nightmare. Taking it to Europe or the United States would lead to other problems.

"A trial outside of Iraq might solve the security issues, but it runs such a risk of not having credibility with the Iraqi population that it wouldn't be worth it," says John Lampe, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.

But he still has fears about having it in Iraq, noting that former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who is on trial at the Hague in the Netherlands, had so many supporters in Serbia, his trial had to be moved for everyone's safety.

"Since we do not want to move Saddam outside Iraq, I do fear that the security situation needs to be sufficiently better than it is now," says Lampe, a history professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Lampe does not see a trial as an all-Iraqi production. "I think avoiding any international involvement will be impossible, given the state of the judicial system in Iraq," he says.

One problem with getting international judges is the death penalty. Bush has virtually endorsed it for Hussein, as have many in Iraq. But that would mean little cooperation from European countries where the death penalty is seen as a violation of international law.

For that and other reasons, few see the possibility of Hussein's trial following the same route that led to the court at the Hague for accused Balkan war criminals and the one in Arusha, Tanzania, trying those accused of genocide in the 1994 massacres in Rwanda.

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