Almost two years after U.S. forces captured a disheveled Saddam Hussein hiding in a hole in the ground on a farm near his home town of Tikrit, the former Iraqi president will appear Wednesday before a five-member panel of his countrymen in the first criminal case brought against him and seven Baath Party associates.
Iraqis blame Hussein for the deaths and torture of hundreds of thousands of citizens during nearly three decades in power. But he will face charges concerning a single incident, the execution of 143 men and boys from the predominantly Shiite Muslim town of Dujail, 35 miles north of the capital.
Prosecutors allege that Hussein ordered the killings as retaliation after gunmen fired on his motorcade in the town on July 8, 1982, in an attempt to assassinate him.
In addition to the executions, which occurred three years later at Abu Ghraib prison, more than 1,500 townspeople were arrested, prosecutors allege. Many were banished to desert prisons where families were crowded together in windowless cells for years. Bulldozers plowed over the fertile groves of orange and date palm trees that provided the primary livelihood for Dujail's residents.
Unlike Balkan leaders who have faced war crimes charges in a U.N. court in The Hague, Hussein will appear before the Iraqi Special Tribunal, a body established in December 2003 by U.S.-led occupation authorities. It will use a mixture of international law and Iraqi criminal law in conducting the trial.
The transitional Iraqi parliament, elected in January, has put its stamp on the court process. It approved minor revisions to the law that created the tribunal, but those changes will not go into effect until they are published in an official paper of record.
In a rare telephone interview on Tuesday, Hussein's sole attorney, Khalil Dulaimi, said his client would not get a "fair or honest trial at all." He questioned the legitimacy of the court.
Dulaimi said he was informed of the trial's start date only on Sept. 25. "I need at least three more months to be prepared for the trial," he said. Speeding up the trial was intended "to confuse the defense and deprive it from full preparations," he added.
"Psychologically, I am prepared and will go with full confidence," he said. But "it will be a show trial only."
In a report issued two days ago, Human Rights Watch raised concerns that the tribunal was not being impartial and independent. The report noted that the U.S. government had spent $128 million on investigations and prosecutions of members of Hussein's government.
The first trials before the tribunal will be "a litmus test for whether it is up to the task of delivering justice," the report stated. "Fair trials are not only the entitlement of defendants. They are also a prerequisite for acknowledging the experiences of hundreds of thousands of victims of the former regime in an open, transparent and publicly accessible way," it said.
Jaafar Mousawi, the tribunal's chief prosecutor in Hussein's trial, said the lawyers and judges intend to reply on Wednesday to accusations that the tribunal does not have proper jurisdiction because it was formed by the U.S. occupation authority.
"They have the right to say what they want," Mousawi said of the critics, "and we have the right and the power to reply. We are confident of what we have in this case, the evidences with the defendants' statements and documents with their signatures."
Asked what was going through his mind on the eve of the trial's start, Mousawi said he was "excited to achieve justice."
The other defendants in the case are Barzan Ibrahim, Hussein's half brother and the head of Iraq's intelligence service until 2003; Taha Yassin Ramadan, Iraq's vice president until 2003; Awad Haman Bander Sadun, former chief of Hussein's Revolutionary Court, which sentenced many of the Dujail men to death; Abdullah Kadhim Ruweid, a senior Baath Party official in Dujail who is accused of rounding up the local residents after the assassination attempt; Mizher Abdullah Ruweid, his son; and two other senior Baath Party officials in Dujail, Ali Daeem Ali and Mohammed Azawi Ali.
If convicted, all could face death by hanging. Under one of the revisions approved by the Iraqi parliament but not yet formally implemented, any sentence would be carried out within 30 days of a final appeal decision. That means Hussein might never be tried for other crimes of which he has been accused, including the campaign against the Kurds that killed at least 180,000, the deadly suppression of Shiite uprisings in southern Iraq following the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the invasion of Kuwait.
Sources close to the tribunal have said that the proceedings that begin Wednesday will probably last only a day or two while the tribunal addresses motions and technicalities. Hussein's defense is likely to request a recess to provide more time to prepare, the sources said, and the tribunal will probably grant it. The sources expect the recess to last several weeks, perhaps until the first of the year.
When the trial resumes, the prosecution would begin outlining its case, calling witnesses and presenting evidence. That phase could last several months, the same sources said. But few expect it to drag out for years.
The trial will be held in the fortified Green Zone in a courtroom built specifically for these proceedings within Hussein's former Republican Palace compound. The marble-lined, chandelier-hung courtroom has a screen to protect the anonymity of some witnesses, according to the Reuters news service. Hussein and his seven co-defendants will face the five judges, though it is not clear if the judges' identities will be revealed. The tribunal will allow televised coverage.
U.S. and Iraqi security forces are on high alert for the trial, which some people anticipate will encourage renewed violence following Saturday's relatively quiet constitutional referendum.
Asked if he thought the Hussein trial would spur insurgent attacks, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari said: "Iraqis in general are not sympathetic to him. I don't think they will shed any tears."
Luai Baldawi, editor in chief of al-Mutamar newspaper in Baghdad, said most Iraqis were eager for the trial to begin. "Hussein represented all Iraq; that is why Iraqis put all the responsibilities to what happened to Iraq on Hussein," Baldawi said. Nonetheless, Iraqis seem split over the fairness of the process, he said.
In the Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad on Tuesday, residents reflected that sentiment. "There should be an Iraqi court to try Hussein," said Muhanned Abbas, 30, who was buying gasoline from a black-market vendor. "The special tribunal is formed by the Americans and will not try Hussein as the Iraqis want but as America wants."
Mohammed Othman, 45, a pharmacist, said that no matter what the outcome, the trial would not change anything. "Hussein is gone," he said. "There would be no difference if he is tried or not. We should focus on how to build our country and how to be united. We should forget about the past and focus on the future."
Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer and special correspondents Omar Fekeiki, Bassam Sebti and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and Salih Saif Aldin in Dujail contributed to this report.