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Iraqi war crimes tribunals could be used to settle old scores, some say

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Human rights activists are worried that Iraqi war crimes tribunals—which could be approved as soon as Wednesday—will be a kangaroo court in which victims will seek retribution against their former persecutors.

Not so, said Sadiah Salman al Lame, arguing that Saddam Hussein and thousands of other Iraqis who carried out crimes in his name can get fair trials in Iraq.

"Of course, even if we have victims who are judges they will give justice fairly," said Lame, 51, a lawyer who wore an abaya, a conservative black Islamic gown.

Lame is a victim too. Saddam's regime executed 24 of her relatives, including her 11-year-old cousin.

Iraq's U.S.-appointed political leaders are expected shortly to approve a draft law that will create a special court to prosecute those accused of mass executions, chemical gassings and other crimes against humanity over the past 35 years.

But achieving justice and healing past wounds, rather than inflicting more pain, won't be easy in a nation where violence, insecurity and intimidation still reign.

In fact, trials in which most of the victims are Shiite Muslims and Kurds and most of the defendants are Sunni Muslims could complicate one of the U.S.-led occupation's toughest tasks: convincing the Sunnis who were the backbone of Saddam's regime that there's a place for them in a new Iraq.

Unlike war crimes tribunals in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia, Iraq's court won't allow a role for the United Nations or international judicial bodies to argue and decide cases.

Instead, in close consultation with Bush administration lawyers, Iraq will use its own judges, international genocide laws and existing Iraqi penal codes to try suspects for everything from genocide to the theft of Iraq's wealth to aggression against Iraq's neighbors.

"This is a historic time, and we're starting a long, long process. It will need from us if not years, decades," said Mowaffak al Rubaie, a member of Iraq's transitional Governing Council. "We need to detoxify Iraq."

Human rights activists fear that such a homegrown tribunal could lead to witch hunts to settle old political scores and tribal rivalries. Human Rights Watch said the Iraqi judiciary "lacks the capacity, experience and independence to provide fair trials for the abuses of the past."

"This law for the tribunal has been drafted in a secretive, behind-closed-doors process," said Richard Dicker, the director of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch. "It increases the likelihood that we could see highly politicized show trials."

There's also concern that the court could be seen as an instrument of Iraq's American occupiers instead of a new Iraq's quest for justice.

"This really does seem to be a process pushed by the United States," said Hanny Megally, the director of the Middle East and North Africa programs for the International Center for Transitional Justice. "There needs to be international involvement to give the process independence and impartiality, so that it is not a victor's court."

"Nobody is opposed to the process being an Iraqi process," he added. "But they clearly need help. And the United Nations is the best place to offer that help."

U.S. officials with the coalition authority said Iraq already had a good body of existing laws and that international standards would be met. The Iraqis, they said, overwhelmingly oppose an international tribunal. The officials said they had no doubt that the Iraqis had the capacity to operate a war crimes court.

"The Governing Council and Iraqi lawyers, jurists are running the show," said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's their product."

A fair tribunal could send a strong message to neighboring autocratic regimes, such as Syria and Iran, that their citizens, too, could hold them accountable someday for human rights abuses, Megally said.

In a riverside mansion once owned by Saddam's son Odai, Lame is waiting for her day in court. In the eight months since Saddam was toppled, she's been painstakingly building cases against members of the former regime.

She's received 10,800 complaints, most of them accusations of mass executions, torture and forced disappearances.

Lame, who heads the Iraqi Center for Humanitarian Activities, said Iraqis were more qualified to decide war crimes cases than U.N. judges were.

"We are living in an Eastern society and we are fully aware of our own suffering much better than foreigners," said Lame, 51, who was banned from practicing law by Saddam's regime.

As she spoke, five more Iraqis arrived to file complaints.

The new tribunal will have up to 10 courts, each with five judges and prosecutors, all of whom will be Iraqi. There also will be a nine-member appeals court, said Entifadh Qanbar, a member of the Governing Council's judicial committee.

The tribunal will have to be built from the ground up, requiring buildings, courtrooms, computers, databases and storage places. The U.S. government has given $75 million to help conduct investigations. If all goes well, the tribunal could start trials as early as June, Iraqi officials said.

It will have to sift through mountains of documents seized from the former regime. These, along with forensic evidence from more than 250 confirmed mass graves, are the primary evidence for trials.

Part of the challenge will be sorting out real documents from the numerous forgeries that have cropped up, Iraqi officials said.

The tribunal is expected to start with high-profile cases, perhaps including trying Saddam in absentia, Rubaie said. Those in the coalition's custody include Ali Hassan al Majid, dubbed "Chemical Ali" for directing chemical attacks on Kurds in northern Iraq in the 1980s.

The trials could involve genocide cases for the campaign against the Kurds and the massacres of Shiites in southern Iraq in 1991, when they rose up against Saddam after the first Persian Gulf War. But they also will include thousands of low-profile cases.

"Whoever committed a crime, low or high rank, must be brought to trial," said Hamid al Kifaey, a spokesman for the Governing Council.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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