The U.S. State Department says it expects the trial of Saddam Hussein, which opens Wednesday in Baghdad, will meet international standards for fairness. The New York-based group Human Rights Watch has expressed concern the proceeding might violate fair trial provisions of international law. 

The United States, along with other governments and non-governmental organizations, has provided funding and technical expertise for the Iraqi Special Tribunal.

But officials here stress that, while it is an Iraqi process, and say they are confident that the Saddam Hussein trial and others to follow will meet international human rights standards.

The comments followed release of a briefing paper Sunday by Human Rights Watch, which said the court set up to try Saddam Hussein and other former Iraqi leaders runs the risk of violating international standards for fair trials.

Among other things, the New York-based group said there is no requirement for the tribunal to prove a defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and that court rules appear to provide inadequate protections for the accused, compared to powers enjoyed by the prosecution.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack did not provide a detailed rebuttal of the Human Rights Watch report, but he said the groundwork appears to have been laid for a fair trial of the former dictator:

I think if you take a look at it, the basic elements for a trial that meet international standards are there," Mr. McCormack says. "You have a defendant that has access to defense counsel.  You have an appeals process.  You have a process that is then set up in accordance with Iraqi laws.  Now, we'll see how this process moves forward.  It's certainly our expectation and our hope would be that it moves forward in accordance with the laws and the regulations that have been put in place.

Mr. McCormack brushed aside the notion that the potentially-divisive Saddam Hussein trial might be ill-timed, or complicate efforts to bring Sunni Muslims into the Iraqi political process.

He said Saddam Hussein, in the U.S. view, is responsible for the brutal oppression of his people and the deaths of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people during his two decades of rule.

He said the trial will be important for Iraqis in coming to terms with and bringing closure to what he termed a dark chapter in Iraqi history, and said the Iraqi people deserve the opportunity to hold to account  those responsible for what he termed this era of brutality.

Saddam Hussein and seven members of his regime are being tried for the 1982 killing of more than 140 people in the town of al-Dujail, the killings  retaliation for an assassination attempt against the Iraqi leader as his motorcade passed through the town north of Baghdad.

U.S. officials say Iraqi prosecutors chose to bring the al-Dujail case first, over more notorious alleged crimes, because the case was concise and completed quickly by tribunal investigators.

They say that, while the tribunal is a domestic court under Iraqi law, its rules of procedure are modeled on United Nations ad hoc war crimes tribunals for Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone.

Saddam Hussein and the others could face the death penalty if convicted, a sentence that would be carried out 30 days after the appeals process is exhausted.

Human Rights Watch criticized what it termed a draconian court rule prohibiting the commutation of death sentences by any Iraqi official including the President, and compelling execution within 30 days of a final judgment.

The private monitoring group also said that in Iraq's fragile political climate, the legitimacy of the court will be in question.