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Security Main Concern in Saddam Hussein Trial

The trial of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein resumes in Baghdad on Monday, December 5. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at one of the main problems facing the court - how to ensure the security of judicial personnel and of potential witnesses.

Saddam Hussein and seven others first appeared in a Baghdad court on October 19. They were charged with crimes against humanity - the torture and killing of more than 140 people after a 1982 assassination attempt against the Iraqi leader in the town of Dujail. Saddam Hussein pleaded not guilty.

After a three-hour session, the trial was adjourned until November 28. It met briefly on that date and was once again recessed, to resume proceedings on December 5. The main reason for the second recess was to allow some of Saddam Hussein's co-defendants time to find replacements for two defense attorneys assassinated during the first five-week adjournment.

Laurel Miller, international war crimes expert with the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, says Iraqi officials must address major security issues.

"In an environment where there is that level of threat against the defense attorneys, and in fact against court personnel as well - about six people associated with the court, including a judge, including a potential witness, have been murdered in the last year," she said. "And in a situation where there are those kinds of threats against anyone associated with the tribunal, one has to be worried about the chilling effect that will have on the process."

Saddam Hussein's trial is held under tight security in a specially built courtroom inside the building that once housed the national headquarters of the former Iraqi leader's ruling Ba'ath party. The building is located inside the heavily protected U.S. "Green Zone".

Ms. Miller says because of a fear of reprisals, very little is known about the background of the judges trying Saddam Hussein.

"Their identities are actually not known and so we don't know a tremendous amount about the background of some of the individuals because their identities have been kept confidential for security reasons," she said. "The chief justice of the tribunal, who did appear publicly during the opening of the trial - he has extensive background as a judge in Iraq. Some of the others, including the chief investigating judge, are fairly young and have a more limited experience. But as I said, for most of the judges, we actually don't know a great deal about them because of security concerns."

What is known is that Iraqi judges received training from U.S. experts in international law as they prepared to try Saddam Hussein. One of those experts is Marc Vlasic, who was a prosecution attorney in the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

"These are people who did not have to come forward to help in the process," he said. "They could have lived lives of comfortable obscurity as jurists in their own jurisdictions within Iraq, but have felt a higher sense of duty in helping establish the rule of law in Iraq. And these people are really taking their lives of their families in their hands by participating in this process. But they feel that they have a sense of duty to help Iraq transition from the former regime to a society based on the rule of law."

Experts say in addition to security for judges, prosecuting attorneys and defense lawyers, Iraqi officials have to make sure that witnesses appearing in the Saddam Hussein trial are also protected.

"There is a vast amount of evidence," said Derek Gilman, an attorney who helped draft the statute of what was to become the Iraqi Special Tribunal. "There are about 24 million pages worth of evidence and there are, of course, hundreds, if not thousands of witnesses. The statute provides that precautions have to be taken to protect the witnesses. However, the statute also provides that the defendant has the right to confront witnesses. So I believe the way that this has been, or will be resolved, is you will see - for example - witnesses who are testifying via video conference in which their faces, or parts of their faces, may be distorted, blacked out. Defendants may be testifying telephonically. There may be voice alteration used so that their voices cannot be recognized - those sorts of procedures will be taken to protect witnesses."

Mr. Gilman and others believe it is essential for Iraqi officials to provide whatever protection is necessary to judges, lawyers and witnesses in order to make sure that all the evidence is presented. They also say that adequate protection will be a significant step forward in guaranteeing a fair trial for Saddam Hussein and other defendants.