U.S. team plans for possible Hussein trial

Administration sending high-level group to Iraq to gather, organize evidence

March 07, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Following a White House directive, the Justice Department is sending a high-level team of prosecutors and investigators to Iraq to take charge of assembling and organizing the evidence to be used in a war crimes trial of Saddam Hussein, administration and Iraqi officials said in recent days.

The previously undisclosed directive signed by Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, orders the government to take the initiative in preparing a case against Hussein that will ultimately be run by Iraqis.

The order, issued in January, gives the Justice Department the authority to act as the lead agency in the effort.

The first officials in a delegation of about 50 lawyers, investigators and prosecutors from the Justice Department are leaving this weekend for Iraq, a department official said. The group will be assigned to a new office called the Regime Crimes Adviser's Office under the U.S. occupation authority.

The office, which is to include legal officials from other countries, will be responsible for sorting through tens of thousands of pages of evidence and preparing a report that will amount to a blueprint for Iraqi prosecutors.

Cartons of documents collected by human rights organizations with evidence of atrocities by Hussein's government have been airlifted into Iraq in recent weeks.

For his part, Hussein, who has been under interrogation by U.S. officials since his capture Dec. 14, has revealed little that could be used in a trial, government officials said in recent days. He has discussed few specific issues and at times comports himself as a head of state, the officials said.

The effort to develop a case involves a delicate balancing act for the administration, which is trying to turn over as complete a brief as possible for the Iraqis to use against Hussein without appearing to dominate the process in a way that could undercut the independence of the Iraqi authorities.

"We're trying to balance a bunch of interests here," said one senior administration official. "We intend to bring quite a few resources to the table but not too many so it looks like a completely American process."

Any trials of Hussein and other senior members of his administration could also carry important political implications in an election year. Administration officials say they expect the proceedings to provide graphic and substantial evidence of the horrific nature of Hussein's government.

Facing wide-scale criticism because no unconventional weapons have been found in Iraq, administration officials have increasingly turned to the evidence of the wide-scale atrocities committed by Hussein's government as a justification for going to war.

But inevitable tension between U.S. planners and Iraqis eager to demonstrate their independence may play a role in the way that issue is handled as well. Salem Chalabi, the Iraqi lawyer in charge of the war crimes issue, said in a recent interview that while he understood the administration's political needs, the trials might not occur until late in the year, after the U.S. elections, and that Hussein might not be the first defendant.

"We need and welcome the Americans' help and role in this," Chalabi, nephew of Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, said in a telephone interview from Iraq. "But no one should misunderstand that this will be an Iraqi process with decisions by Iraqis."

M. Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian-born international lawyer who is an authority on the Arab legal world, said he believed that the United States was interested in orchestrating a wide-ranging Nuremberg-style war crimes trial against Hussein.

"The administration is looking to have a political vindication of why the U.S. went into Iraq," he said. "With no weapons of mass destruction to be found, the next best thing is to show how bad Hussein was, how his regime was like the Nazis'."

Bassiouni, who has served as a legal consultant for the Americans and the Iraqis, said such a broad approach could backfire because it might give Hussein an opportunity to grandstand in a way that would win favor with Arab audiences. He recommended a narrower prosecution, with specific offenses and specific acts to be charged.

Chalabi, who is in charge of the war crimes portfolio, agrees.

"We'll tailor the trial procedures in such a way that shows we learned the lessons of the Milosevic trial," he said, referring to how Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian leader and Yugoslav president, has used his war crimes trial as a platform to justify his actions and to try to put his accusers, the Western governments, on trial. "We don't want the tribunal and people like Hussein to be the principal teller of the history here," said Chalabi, who was educated at Yale and the Northwestern University Law School. "We want to bring very specific charges. And the defendants would only be allowed to bring witnesses and make their cases in connection with those specific charges."

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