When the curtain goes up on Saddam Hussein's first trial
Wednesday, the audience will stretch far beyond the Baghdad
courtroom where the former Iraqi president is on trial for his life.
Advocates of international justice, anxious to spread the law's
reach to dictators everywhere, will be watching to see how the Iraqi
Special Tribunal copes as judges try the gravest crimes in the
world's statute books.
"This is one of the most important trials of our lifetimes," says
Michael Scharf, a law professor at Case Western University in
Cleveland, because of "the number of victims ... the status of the
defendant ... and the fact that the whole world went to war against
this man in 1991."
The way the trial has been organized, however, has divided
international justice experts. Some of them say Mr. Hussein should
have been brought before an international tribunal, such as the
panels that judged Nazi leaders at Nuremburg, or the Rwandan Hutu
officials charged with genocide, rather than a domestic Iraqi court.
"Since some of the crimes he is accused of are crimes under
international law," such as crimes against humanity and genocide,
says Geoffrey Robertson, a British lawyer, "it would be better for a
proper international court to be set up."
Since Nuremburg, several such courts have furthered the idea that
crimes against humanity require judgment in courts with broader
authority than national tribunals.
Hussein's trial "is a departure from the main current of trials
of senior officials in post-conflict situations" such as Rwanda,
Sierra Leone, or the former Yugoslavia, adds Richard Dicker, head of
the International Justice department of Human Rights Watch in New
York. "That's a bad thing," he argues. "These are extremely
difficult trials to do in the best of circumstances. They put an
enormous strain on just developed or newly restored judicial
systems" after wars.
Other observers are more sanguine. "International courts are not
a preferred option, but limited to cases where national justice is
not available," says Adam Roberts, professor of law at Oxford
University. "In this case there seems sufficient reason to think
that a national court can handle the matter."
"One wants to engage the local judiciary and the local
population," adds Cherif Bassiouni, a professor of law at DePaul
University, who drafted the special tribunal's statute. "It is
important that any kind of post-conflict justice be owned by the
The first case brought against Hussein concerns Dujail, a village
north of Baghdad where security forces are alleged to have killed at
least 140 people after a failed attempt there on the president's
life in 1982. It is a relatively simple case, and "the evidence is
so overwhelming that people will say it is a fair verdict" even if
the trial itself is not a model of judicial efficacy and fairness,
says Professor Scharf, who helped train some of the judges and
prosecutors involved in the case.
But later, Hussein and other former Iraqi leaders are expected to
face charges relating to the use of poison gas against Kurdish towns
and villages - considerably more complex cases that may amount to
"That is the crime that the international community requires
should be tried, and the allegations are of such wickedness that
they should be tried by a proper international court" to guarantee
the trial's fairness and credibility, argues Mr. Robertson, who sits
with Sierra Leonean and foreign judges on a United Nations war
crimes tribunal. "This is a missed opportunity."
Some critics of the Iraqi tribunal (including Hussein's lawyers)
argue that it is not legitimate because it derives from an invasion
of Iraq that was illegal in the first place. But even opponents of
the former Iraqi regime, who have been trying to put Hussein on
trial for many years, are disappointed by the way he is being
brought to justice now. …