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International Law Specialists Debate Prosecution of Saddam Hussein

Where will former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein be put on trial, who will prosecute and defend him, and if found guilty will he face the death penalty? Those are some of the questions specialists in international law are debating about what is likely to be one of the most watched trials in modern history.

Since Saddam Hussein's capture on December 13 last year, agents from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, CIA, and the Justice Department have been interrogating the former Iraqi dictator.

In addition to whatever information comes from this questioning, there is a large amount of evidence and many witnesses that could support charges of atrocities by Saddam's regime over many years.

Laurence Rothenberg, a specialist in international law at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says the circumstances of the crimes allegedly committed by Saddam Hussein are well known.

"Saddam was responsible for at least 300,000 murders and hundreds of thousands more tortures and perhaps as many as a million people were ultimately killed by his regime," he said. "Those include people who were victims of genocide, the Kurds, the Shiite marsh Arabs in the south of the country and also smaller minority groups."

Mr. Rothenberg argues that despite the huge amount of evidence against Saddam, it is important to put him on trial in Baghdad.

He says this is essential for the people of Iraq and the world.

"The question, of course, is what is the purpose of trying Saddam and there are many purposes in holding a war crimes tribunal and it is not just to establish guilt," he said. "It would also be things like providing catharsis for the victims, which I view as one of the most important issues and one of the main reasons for having it in Iraq itself. Another reason is to establish a record for history to expose what Saddam's regime was and that provides an element of catharsis not only for the victims, but also for the rest of the Arab and Muslim world and the international world."

Tom Malinowski, Washington Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch, argues that Saddam's prosecution should be led by Iraqis, but says local attorneys and judges need international expertise to properly handle a trial of this magnitude.

"Those who were in Iraq during Saddam's period, the lawyers and jurists there, include many people who I am sure are very, very decent, committed people who want to see this done right," he said. "But they have no experience, in our interviews with these folks, of any trial that has lasted more than a day or two. That is simply the way things worked in Iraq under Saddam Hussein."

If Saddam is found guilty should he be given the death penalty?

Mr. Malinowski says given the country's recent history the answer may be no.

"Keep in mind that for the last 30 years Iraq was governed by the death penalty," he noted. "It was governed by a culture of death, and retribution and revenge. That was the solution to every problem in Iraq. I would argue that if you want this country to turn the corner, if the Iraqi people want to build an entirely new society that is different in a revolutionary way from what they had before, one of the best ways they can do that is to establish a government that no longer claims for itself the right to kill its own people, even under the most extreme circumstances."

Laurence Rothenberg of the Center for Strategic and International Studies strongly disagrees. He says given the severity of the crimes allegedly committed by Saddam, the death penalty is the only appropriate sentence.

"In my opinion the only thing that comes close to an appropriate punishment for murdering 300,000 people and torturing others, throwing some people live into industrial shredding machines, cutting off people's ears and tongues and raping their wives and daughters in front of them, is the death penalty," he said. "If it were up to me Saddam would be executed 300,000 times, once for every victim."

The Bush administration has said Saddam will be turned over to a new Iraqi government, although it is still not clear when he will go on trial.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has indicated it could occur as early as July, when a provisional Iraqi government is scheduled to be established.

"The credibility of the new Iraqi government will be measured by how they handle this horrible dictator," Secretary Powell said.