Iraq's new government assumed legal, but not physical, custody of former president Saddam Hussein and 11 of his top deputies Wednesday under an arrangement with the U.S. government that will allow them to be brought before a special tribunal and tried for crimes against humanity.
After the transfer of legal custody on Wednesday morning, Hussein and the others were individually marched into a small room at a U.S. detention facility in the Baghdad area and informed by a leader of the tribunal that they were now in the custody of the new government of Iraq, an Iraqi official said. The announcement occurred in the presence of an Iraqi judge and included a statement to each detainee that they would have the right to legal counsel, the official said.
Hussein and the others are scheduled to appear before a judge on Thursday to be formally charged. Those proceedings will be televised, providing Iraqis and the world with the first glimpse of the former president since the hours following his capture by U.S. troops on Dec. 13.
Salem Chalabi, who heads the Iraqi special tribunal and participated in the meetings with the 12 detainees, said Hussein appeared to have lost weight during his confinement. The shaggy beard he had when he was captured has been shaved off. U.S. and Iraqi officials declined to describe the precise location of the detention facility.
Upon entering the room, Hussein said "Good morning," Chalabi told reporters. After being informed that he was being placed under Iraqi jurisdiction, Hussein "asked if he could ask some questions," Chalabi told the Reuters news agency.
"He was told he should wait until tomorrow," Chalabi said.
Some of Hussein's former lieutenants appeared nervous and some were hostile as they were told they would be charged on Thursday, Chalabi said. Ali Hassan Majeed, also known as Chemical Ali, who reportedly gave the orders to use chemical weapons against Kurdish separatists in the late 1980s, appeared especially rattled.
"He looked very scared," Chalabi said. "He was shaking."
In other developments on Wednesday, insurgents fired at least 10 mortar rounds at a U.S. base near Baghdad International Airport, wounding 11 soldiers, two of them seriously.
[Early Thursday, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. military launched an airstrike in Fallujah against a suspected hideout of Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who has asserted responsibility for killing foreign hostages in Iraq. A doctor in Fallujah said four people were killed and 10 were injured, according to the AP.]
It was not clear how much Hussein and the 11 others know about what has occurred in Iraq since their capture, including the transfer of political authority from the U.S. occupation authority to an interim Iraqi government on Monday, the step that cleared the way for the handover of legal custody and the commencement of judicial proceedings.
With the transfer of legal custody, Hussein and the others ceased to be U.S. prisoners of war, effectively ending the CIA's ability to interrogate them. They now can request to have an attorney present when they are questioned and can invoke a legal right to silence. The ability to meet with attorneys also will allow them to communicate with family members and receive news about life outside their cells, where they have been held in solitary confinement.
But the change in legal status also means they are no longer under the protection of the Geneva Conventions. They now can be photographed and shown on television if authorities so desire.
The other Iraqis handed over included Hussein's two half-brothers, Barzan Ibrahim Hassan and Watban Ibrahim Hassan; former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz; former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan; and Hussein's personal secretary, Abid Hamid Mahmud. All were on the U.S. military's list of 55 most-wanted Iraqis.
The 12 men will remain in U.S.-run detention facilities in Iraq because the interim government does not yet operate any high-security jails. But the transfer of legal custody, negotiated between Iraqi and U.S. officials over the past few weeks, allows Iraqi investigators and prosecutors to visit the men and order them brought to court.
The tribunal was established last year by Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council, a body that has since been dissolved, to try Hussein and senior members of his government for crimes committed during the nearly 24 years he was in power. Chalabi has said he expects a few hundred defendants to be brought before the court, many of whom will be charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide and other offenses.
Although some of the defendants could be indicted within a few months, trials likely will not begin until late this year or early next year, U.S. officials familiar with the court said. The interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, promised on Tuesday that Hussein would face "a just trial and a fair trial, unlike the trials that he afflicted on his enemies, on the Iraqi people."
President Ghazi Yawar told an Arab newspaper that Iraq's new government had decided to reinstate the death penalty, which was suspended during the U.S. occupation. Legal specialists said Hussein and other defendants could face capital punishment, even if it isn't officially reinstated until after they are charged, because the crimes they are alleged to have committed occurred at a time when Iraq had a death penalty.
Two Jordanian attorneys who said they have been retained by Hussein's family to represent him dismissed the tribunal as illegal. "This is a mockery of justice," Mohammad Rashdan, who said he was part of a 20-member legal team hired by Hussein's wife, told Reuters. "The allegations that this is going to be a fair trial is baseless."
He and another attorney, Ziad Khasawneh, said they wanted to travel to Baghdad but would not do so unless the Iraqi government provides them with security.