Ali Hasan al-Majid, also known as Chemical Ali, and former defence minister Sultan Hashim have appeared before an investigating magistrate, in what some are calling an illegal judicial process.

Al-Majid, who is accused of using poison gas against Kurdish villagers in the late 80s, and General Hashim were both represented by lawyers, according to Raid Juhi, the chief investigating judge for the special tribunal set up to try the leaders of the old government.

The hearings, promised by the interim government as it began campaigning for the first post-Saddam Hussein era election, were the first of a new stage in the trial process that will press war crimes and other charges against the ousted Iraqi president and 11 others, officials said.

However, Badia Izzat Arif, a lawyer for former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, told Aljazeera the US-appointed judges and courts are illegitimate.

Legitimacy questioned

"The investigative judges were appointed under the occupation," he said.

 Judge Juhi addresses Ali Hasan
al-Majid at the hearing

"The law regulating criminal courts is under the influence of the occupation. This is illegal.

"It will be legal only if there is a legitimate government which issues laws, creates civil and criminal courts. All these courts and resolutions are illegal and the Americans know all these facts which can only be described as a big scandal," he said.

Meanwhile, Judge Juhi said there was no set timetable for the trials and that the other accused would also have many hearings in the investigation stage, which would determine whether to send them for trial.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi had said last week, as campaigns began for the 30 January election, that trials would begin next week. But Juhi stressed this was not formally the start of trial but merely a preliminary stage of the legal process.

"Hurrying will not help this case," he said.

Loyal companion

Al-Majid was arrested in August last year and charged with involvement in the gassing of Kurds at Halabja in 1988, taking part in the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and the bloody crushing of a Shia rebellion in the wake of the first Gulf war.

Like his cousin Saddam, the 60-year-old former interior minister comes from Tikrit, and was one of the fallen leader's most loyal companions.

Saddam Hussein did not see a
lawyer for nearly a year

International human-rights campaigners have voiced concerns that Allawi might rush trials, while lawyers for Saddam and the others complained they had no access to their clients.

Saddam saw a lawyer for the first time on Thursday, just over a year since he was captured on 13 December 2003.

An official from the British embassy, which is working closely with the Iraqi interim government on the trial, said they understood the pair were the first of the 12 to face a judge in this way.

Saddam and the others last appeared to hear the broad thrust of charges against them in July.

Izzat added that his client was in poor health.

"Tariq Aziz is sick and he is in need of medical care," he said. "He has been denied all kinds of help and basically his state is worsening every day."