New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the Iraqi Special Tribunal, set up to gather evidence against and try Saddam and his top lieutenants, as having serious human rights shortcomings and lacking fair-trial protections.
 
"Trying former Iraqi officials under the current rules could mean a wasted opportunity to put Saddam and his henchmen on trial in a manner that has credibility in the eyes of the world," Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at HRW, said on Friday.

"Trials for atrocities committed during Baath party rule could not be more important for the victims and to show that justice works," he said. "But the process must be fair for justice to be done."

Iraq's interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi announced this week that trials would begin, a day before he launched his party's campaign to contest Iraq's first post-Saddam elections, scheduled for 30 January.

Iraq's defence minister, a close ally of Allawi's, said the next day that Ali Hasan al-Majid, a feared cousin of Saddam's better known as "Chemical Ali", would be the first to be tried.

He is accused of using poison gas against the Kurds in northern Iraq during the 1980s, killing as many as 5000 in one day.

While the government described them as trials, foreign diplomats and other Iraqi officials said they would be more akin to preliminary, investigative hearings. A full-blown war crimes trial is not expected to begin for some time.

Legal access

That apart, HRW said provisions so far put in place, including for preliminary hearings, were insufficient.

Judges have not been properly trained, it said, and defendants have not had full access to lawyers.

Saddam saw a lawyer for the first
time on Thursday

Saddam saw a lawyer for four hours on Thursday, the first time he has seen one since his capture a year ago.

The Special Tribunal's statutes also do not contain explicit guarantees against the use of confessions extracted under torture, or a requirement that guilt be proven beyond reasonable doubt, the rights organisation said.

"The tribunal's statute fails to require that judges and prosecutors have relevant experience trying cases of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity - experience readily acknowledged to be lacking among Iraqi judges," it said.
 
"Given the complexity of prosecuting these types of cases and the current state of the Iraqi justice system, this raises concerns that the tribunal will lack necessary expertise."

The Iraqi Special Tribunal was set up in December last year by the US Coalition Provisional Authority, the body that ran Iraq after Saddam's overthrow until June this year.

Unfamiliar intricacies

US-trained lawyer Salim Chalabi was appointed to head it, but was removed in September after implication in murder charges that were later dismissed. The Iraqi government has since appointed a judge, Ammar al-Bakri, to take over.
 
In recent months, groups of Iraqi prosecutors and judges have attended training courses in London on international law, but have admitted themselves that they are unfamiliar with the intricacies of prosecuting war crimes trials.

Human Rights Watch said it had urged for amendments to be made in the tribunal's statutes, particularly when it comes to defendants' access to lawyers and other basic rights. But it said many changes still needed to be made.
 
"The Iraqi Special Tribunal has serious human-rights shortcomings," Dicker said. "The Iraqi government will need to change the process and make sure that trials are fair."