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No decisions yet made over how to bring Saddam to justice

WASHINGTON—Saddam Hussein "will face the justice he denied to millions," President Bush pledged Sunday. But how? And where?

Within hours of Saddam's capture, political and legal debate began over whether he should be tried by Iraqis in Iraq, or before an international tribunal. One key question is whether he will face the death penalty.

Top U.S. officials said those decisions have not been made.

"How and when Saddam would face justice—and he will face justice—is a question that remains before us," said U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer.

Iraqis on the interim Governing Council, who last week set up a special tribunal to try Saddam's associates, insisted Sunday that Saddam should be put on open, public trial in Iraq.

"There is no question that the process will be an Iraqi process," said Adnan Pachachi, a council member.

But several jurists and human rights experts, along with some U.S. senators, said an international forum perceived as impartial—similar to the ongoing trial of ex-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic—would be a better way to persuade the world of Saddam's crimes.

"Whatever the forum, the basic concern is that it have credibility in the eyes of the world, and it can't be seen as a sham trial," said retired U.S. Appeals Court Judge Patricia Wald.

For two years after she left the federal bench, Wald served as a judge in the special U.N. tribunal set up in The Hague, Netherlands, for Yugoslav war crimes.

"There is a great wealth of experience now on the international level, and if you try Saddam for war crimes and genocide, you need judges, prosecutors and counsel who know international law," Wald added.

The trial of Milosevic is now in its second year, as he defends himself against charges of war crimes and genocide for "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans. Several senators, including Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Joseph Biden, D-Del., said that such a trial could work for Saddam.

"Iraqi justice is going to want to be a swift and powerful sword," Biden said on ABC's "This Week." "But I'd like to make sure it's done more like it was done with Milosevic and that every single thing is laid out there."

A vast, documented record of Saddam's crimes already exists, from his campaign to kill thousands of Kurds and Shiite Muslims to his use of chemical weapons against Iran and the killing of hundreds of Kuwaitis. The State Department also has collected such evidence for years.

By one conservative estimate, Saddam "murdered a quarter million of his own people," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, which analyzed 18 tons of documents in the 1990s about the eradication of Kurdish villages.

And since April, the Pentagon reports that mass graves have been unearthed that may contain the remains of 300,000 people.

Roth said an Iraqi trial could be seen by the world as an instrument of U.S. authority. He is also worried that Iraqis are not up to the monumental task of trying Saddam, because they lack a tradition of due process, experienced legal professionals and the resources to do the job.

"Given that insurgents are now killing people who cooperate with Americans, how do we protect witnesses from intimidation—that's one big question," Roth said.

There's another option for trying Saddam: a "mixed" tribunal of Iraqis and international experts, possibly with participants from Muslim countries. One such model is the U.N.-backed tribunal in Sierra Leone, which has indicted former Liberian President Charles Taylor.

But the Bush administration has opposed several initiatives in international justice, including the creation of the International Criminal Court last year. And that court has no jurisdiction over events before July 2002.

The administration may also want to retain the option of the death penalty in this case, and international tribunals have no provision for executions. Members of the Iraqi Governing Council said they could reinstate capital punishment when Iraq regains its sovereignty next year.

Among outspoken proponents of the death penalty Sunday was Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., a presidential candidate.

If an international or Iraqi tribunal cannot execute him, "he should be brought before an American military tribunal and face death," Lieberman said.

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

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