The capture of Saddam Hussein last Saturday has raised a debate about the way in which he should be tried and about the extent to which Iraqis are up to the task of judging the former dictator. Legal experts and Iraqi anti-Saddam activists met in Washington for a panel discussion on the issue.
The American Enterprise Institute, the conservative research organization that convened the panel, summarized the issues at stake: "Who will gather the evidence? Who will judge? And is Iraq ready for the complex, demanding process required to judge [Saddam Hussein]?"
Several governments and organizations have given their answers. Iran has called for a trial by an international court to examine, among other things, Iraq's use of banned chemical weapons during the eight-year war the two countries fought in the 1980s. Human rights groups also want an international court, saying Iraqi jurists probably lack the legal skills necessary to prosecute complex cases of human rights violations.
Legal expert Neil Kritz discussed two possible options. One is a tribunal under joint Iraqi and international jurisdiction, similar to that prosecuting alleged war crimes in Sierra Leone. Another is a national court that he says would give Iraqis more control over the legal process.
"What it does provide for is extensive international involvement in the process in two important ways: First, it does provide for the option of appointing international judges to the trial and appeal chambers in addition to Iraqi judges. Secondly, it provides and, in fact, requires the appointment of international advisers and observers in each of the component units of the tribunal, within the trial and appeal chambers," he said.
Mr. Kritz said Iraqi involvement in a trial of Saddam Hussein would have a beneficial effect in helping the country deal with its past.
Kanan Makiya, a longtime anti-Saddam activist, said state documents from the former dictatorship could help turn future prosecutions into a significant act of democracy-building for the entire Middle East.
"In a regime that is based on the principle of total and complete mistrust, and the installation of fear in every individual, it is absolutely essential to keep a record of everything you do, otherwise, you cannot tell if any decision has been followed through. This archive, this paper trail is one central component of the way in which we want future generations of Iraqis to grow up," he said. "The impact of this trial is certainly not just inside Iraq. It will reverberate throughout the Middle Eastern political scene for decades to come."
The panel members also said no one has found any so-called "smoking gun," or written document directly linking Saddam to the use of chemical weapons and other rights violations. But they agreed that the former dictator could be tried for erecting a system and a chain of command that carried out atrocities.