Iraq's U.S.-appointed government will establish a tribunal for crimes against humanity in the coming days that could try hundreds of officials, including Saddam Hussein and his top aides, Iraqi and American officials told The Associated Press on Friday.
Some human rights groups criticized the plans, saying Iraq's U.S. occupiers have too much of a hand in them and that Iraqi judges and prosecutors may not have the experience needed to try the cases.
The law creating the tribunal — which could be passed as early as Sunday — will be similar to proposals made in Washington in April, one member of Iraq's Governing Council said. The law calls for Iraqi judges to hear cases presented by Iraqi lawyers, with international experts serving only as advisers.
That would be starkly different from U.N.-sponsored tribunals set up to consider war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. In those cases, international judges and lawyers have argued and decided cases.
Governing Council member Mahmoud Othman said the tribunal would hear hundreds of cases involving members of the former regime.
"There will be more trials than only the 55 deck of cards," he told AP, referring to the U.S. list of most-wanted Iraqis. "Anybody against whom a complaint is filed with evidence against them could be tried."
Already, thousands of family members of the disappeared have filed complaints against members of the former regime. One group in Baghdad, the Iraqi Human Rights Society, took in 7,000 complaints before the paperwork overwhelmed its staff.
The Governing Council has been discussing the law for months, and it was not expected to encounter major opposition within the governing body. The U.S. occupation authority also must sign off on the plan.
It remained unclear when the trials would begin. The coalition authority now holds at least 5,500 people in prisons, but it isn't known how many of those are war crimes suspects and how many are accused of common crimes.
Those in custody include Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali" for his role in chemical attacks on Kurds in the 1980s; Saddam's secretary Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti and Muhammad Hamza al-Zubaydi, a leader of 1991 suppression of Shiite Muslim rebellion. If Saddam himself were captured, the special tribunal presumably would try him as well.
As evidence, prosecutors will use a growing cache of documents seized from the former regime. The coalition now has an estimated nine miles of paperwork, and Iraqi human rights groups and political parties have even more.
Evidence also will come from the excavation of mass graves that dot the Iraqi landscape. There are some 270 mass graves believed to hold at least 300,000 sets of remains. Forensic teams are expected to start excavating a few for evidence in late January, according to an AP investigation.
Human rights workers said the trials could include two genocide cases — for a campaign against Kurds in northern Iraq in the 1980s, and for the draining of southern Iraqi marshes in 1992 that drove many Marsh Arabs from their homes.
They also could include cases against former Iraqi officials for the massacres of Shiites and Kurds in 1991, when those communities rose up against Saddam at the end of the Gulf War.
The tribunal will use a combination of laws, according to people who have seen a draft of the plan, including the Iraqi penal code of 1969 and the Iraqi criminal code of 1971. In addition, the new charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity — taken from international courts — will be added, they said.
Human rights groups have criticized the draft, but Othman said the only differences to the draft are some small changes in legal wording.
Some groups said the United States has dictated the terms of the tribunal — down to who would be prosecuted, and how — and worry that Iraqi judges and lawyers may not be up to the task.
Richard Dicker, director of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch, said he was concerned officials didn't consider bringing in judges who have worked on major war crimes trials in other countries.
"After three decades of Baath Party rule, the capacity of Iraqi judges to conduct incredibly complicated trials has been greatly diminished," he said by telephone from New York. He said he worried about the tribunal's ability to provide fair trials.
Two recent studies of the Iraqi judicial system, obtained by AP, describe a legal system riddled with corruption and incompetence. One was conducted in August by the United Nations; the other in June by the U.S. Department of Justice.
"A degraded justice system and inadequate and outdated legal framework is not capable of rendering fair and effective justice for violations of international humanitarian law and other serious criminal offenses involving the prior regime," the U.N. study said.
But Sandra Hodgkinson, director of the coalition authority's human rights and justice office, said she believed an Iraqi court system — with some training from international experts — will work.
"Iraqis want it that way, and they're capable of doing it that way," she said. "There is no need to have an international tribunal when the local population is willing and able to do it."
Adnan Jabbar al-Saadi, a lawyer with the new Iraqi Human Rights Ministry who said he expected to argue some of the tribunal cases, agreed." I think it's very important for people to see the criminals who killed their families in court," he said. "The United Nations asked us if they should give money to people so they would feel better, and I told them nothing will make them feel better except seeing the responsible criminals in prison."
Some groups questioned the legality of the tribunal. Under the Geneva Conventions, an occupying power can't create new laws, except when needed to restore order.
Hodgkinson said she wasn't concerned about questions of legality.
"I would be surprised if anybody would ever raise this as an issue," she said.
© 2003 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.