With the paint still drying on the walls of the newly constructed Baghdad courthouse, the Iraqi Special Tribunal is counting down to T- day, when it places the alleged perpetrators of the world's most gruesome crimes on trial in front of television cameras for the world to witness.
War-crimes trials for Saddam Hussein and 11 of his Baathist Party cohorts, accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, and other human rights violations, will begin within the next two to four weeks, according to a US government official who works with the Iraqis.
They are crucial for not only bringing these leaders to justice, according to international law and human rights experts. But they are essential to promoting the healing of a population still reeling from war and decades of barbaric rule, and for providing a boost to the new Iraqi government's legitimacy.
"These trials are enormously important because of the scale and gravity of the crimes committed by the Baath Party government in the past, and as a means of bringing some sense of redress to the victims and survivors of the victims across Iraq," says Richard Dicker, director of the international justice program for Human Rights Watch in New York. "They are also important as a way of helping plant respect for the rule of law in a new Iraq."
First case to come up
The first to sit in the dock is likely to be Ali Hassan al- Majid, known as "Chemical Ali," for the role he played in the chemical weapons attacks that killed as many as 100,000 Kurds in northern Iraq in 1988. Then, Barzan Ibrahim al-Hassan al-Tikriti, commander of the Special Republican Guard as well as director of the Mukhabarat, the notorious intelligence service, is expected to be tried for torturing and murdering thousands of people.
Although the courts are set up differently - much to the distress of international law and human rights experts - the cases brought against members of the Hussein regime will parallel in some ways the prosecutions of members of the Slobodan Milosevic regime in the special war crimes tribunal created for the former Yugoslavia. It will be about building responsibility all the way to the top - to Mr. Hussein himself.
"The trick for the prosecutors is not necessarily to prove the crimes were committed but to prove individual responsibility," says Nathan Brown, an Arab world expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Anatomy of a prosecution
Because the building blocks of the case presentation are so crucial, US government officials say the training and evidence- gathering period for the Iraqi judges, prosecutors, and investigators has been long, but vital. Advisers from the US State Department and Department of Justice (DOJ) have been working with the Iraqi court since it was launched by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority in December 2003. According to the US official working with the operation, they focused on two …