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December 18, 2004
The Wheels Of Iraqi Justice Begin To Turn

After being liberated by the Anglo-American coalition of nations in spring 2003, one of the big questions was whether the Coalition would try the captured members of the Saddam Hussein regime for war crimes, la Nuremberg, or if the Iraqis could establish a system of justice that could handle the task themselves. Today the Iraqis begin to give the world its answer as investigative judges start questioning the prisoners as the opening of the trial process:

Iraqi judges on Saturday started interrogating Saddam Hussein's former defense minister and the notorious general known as Chemical Ali, who is accused of gassing thousands of Kurds in the 1980s, the lead judge said.

The investigative hearings for Sultan Hashim Ahmad, Saddam's last defense chief, and Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as Chemical Ali mark the opening of the trial process the first among 11 Saddam deputies who, along with Saddam himself, face prosecution for alleged crimes during the ousted dictator's three decade rule.

"Ali Hassan al-Majid and Sultan Hashim have been interrogated and their lawyers attended the investigative hearing," said Raad al-Juhyi.

Despite some reporting this week that the trials themselves would soon begin, these hearings are more like grand juries. Just as in many legal systems, Iraqi judges take a more active role in the prosecution, acting as investigators and retaining the ability to bring charges themselves. The choice to start with "Chemical Ali" is both interesting and understandable, as the evidence on his complicity in crimes against humanity makes a conviction a slam-dunk. It's critical that the first effort produce a success, as the battered Iraqi population needs to acquire confidence that the fledgling justice system will protect them.

One question may be why they didn't start with Saddam. I suspect that they want to work their way up to Saddam for a couple of reasons. They know that Saddam's trial will garner extensive international scrutiny and starting with Chemical Ali allows them to work out the kinks before the full weight of media pressure is brought to bear. They also may hope that the regime's underlings will, like Tariq Aziz, turn on their former master and make the final connections between the atrocities and the man who ordered them.

One more issue will impact their credibility, the same as at Nuremberg -- how to structure the trials to allow for a fair defense. No one doubts that the Iraqis want to see these men hang from the nearest horizontal apparatus for their long and brutal repression, but without a credible trial, the executions would be nothing more than vigilantism. That probably wouldn't trouble too many people, but in order to build a new social structure based on the rule of law rather than the rule of the gun, the judicial system has to work for both parties.

It's a tough challenge. So far, it appears that the Iraqis are up to it.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 18, 2004 8:37 AM

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