Iraqi interim officials said on Wednesday that it was the first step towards their facing justice over a range of crimes inflicted on thousands of Iraqi civilians.

The former Iraqi leader is expected to make his first public appearance on Thursday. The process is also expected to be televised live and beamed around the world, but officials warned that an actual indictment would not happen for several months.

"Iraq has received legal authority of the former president Saddam Hussein," said Girgis Sada, a spokesman for the interim Iraqi government.

Two days after transfer

The transfer took place just 48-hours after the US-led occupying authority transferred authority back to Iraq. But in a sign of the continuing heavy foreign influence over Iraqi procedures, the US military will be responsible for the physical custody of the high-profile detainee. 

Allawi said Saddam and his men
will remain under 'US protection'

It also followed the decision of the Iraqi government to reinstate the death penalty, President Shaikh Ghazi al-Yawir said in an interview published on Wednesday.

"We held a meeting shortly after the transfer of power, during which we took some decisions including re-establishing the death penalty," Yawir told the Asharq al-Awsat Arabic daily.

He added that the decision would be announced in the "near future".

Explanation of rights

Earlier in the day, Salim Chalabi, the head of an Iraqi tribunal, met Saddam at a high-security jail to explain his rights and what would happen on Thursday.

"He was in good health, he was seeing a doctor this morning," Chalabi said after his meeting with the ex-president, adding that Saddam had lost weight during his nearly seven months in US military detention.

Saddam will be the first of the 12 detainees to be charged on Thursday followed by 11 of his former officials, including Ali Hasan al-Majid, also known as Chemical Ali for the 1988 gassing of the Kurds, former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz and ex-vice president Taha Yasin Ramadan.

11th hour request

Earlier in the day, the European Court of Human Rights threw out a complaint filed by the former Iraqi leader asking that Britain be barred from turning him over to Iraqi custody.

"How can the defence team go to a country where it doesn't enjoy any protection? They
will kill us there"

Ziad al-Khasawnah,
possible Saddam defence lawyer

Lawyers acting on behalf on Saddam had on Tuesday filed a request asking Europe's top human rights court to prevent Britain from facilitating Saddam's transfer to Iraqi custody "unless and until the Iraqi interim government has provided adequate assurances that the applicant will not be subject to the death penalty".

But in a statement on Wednesday, the Strasbourg-based court said it had decided not to grant the emergency request. It none the less said Saddam was free to "pursue his application before the court".

French lawyer Emmanuel Ludot, one of a 20-strong team appointed by Saddam's wife to represent him, said the deposed Iraqi leader would refuse to acknowledge any court or any judge.

No security

Ziad al-Khasawnah, one of Saddam's would-be defence lawyers, said in Amman, Jordan, that the defence team planned to go to Iraq but that Allawi's interim government had not said whether it would provide security.

"How can the defence team go to a country where it doesn't enjoy any protection? They will kill us there," said an angry al-Khasawnah.

Al-Shibibi said there are Iraqi lawyers who would agree to represent the former government. Few would consent to release their identities, nor for that matter, would prosecutors, he said. Already, lawyers working in Iraq's justice system have received death threats.

Saddam's defence lawyers, following a meeting with the International Committee of the Red Cross, wherein they requested the safety of and immediate access to their client, reiterated the former Iraqi president has to be dealt with according to statutes of the Iraqi special tribunal.

Rights

Adopted by the Iraqi prosecuting authorities, the defence lawyers stressed that the statutes include that the accused shall be entitled to a fair hearing conducted impartially and to  minimum guarantees, which include:

- to be informed promptly and in detail of the nature, cause and content of the charge against him;
- to  have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defence and to communicate freely with the counsel of his own choosing in confidence;
- to be tried without undue delay;
- to be tried in his presence and to defend himself in person or through legal assistance of his own choosing, to be informed, if he does not have legal assistance, of this right; and to have legal assistance assigned to him, in any case where the interests of justice so require and without payment by him in any such case if he does not have sufficient means to pay for it...;
- not to be compelled to testify against himself or to confess guilt.

The proceedings will rely on a mix of Iraqi criminal law, international regulations such as the Geneva Conventions and experiences of bodies such as the Rwanda war crimes tribunal.

Thursday's appearance at the tribunal, housed in a courthouse with a prominent clock tower inside Baghdad's sealed-off Green Zone, is expected to be filmed for public release.

The pictures would offer the first bit of video since Saddam's 13 December capture, when a clip showed the bushy-bearded leader opening his mouth for a dental examination.

The trial of the 67-year-old stands to be the most sensational case in Iraqi history.