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Thursday, December 18

Saddam's past victims could stand in judgment

By Greg Barrett | GNS

WASHINGTON - If Iraqis conduct the trial of Saddam Hussein, as President Bush suggested this week, his fate could rest with a panel of five judges overseen by a Supreme Court justice imprisoned by Saddam last year.

Kurdish judge Dara Noor al-Din, who largely wrote the newly issued rules for Iraqi war-crime trials, was jailed for eight months in Baghdad's crude Abu Ghraib prison after refusing orders from Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council to seize land.

He was released during Saddam's general amnesty in October 2002 and is today the only judge on the U.S.-appointed, 25-member Iraqi Governing Council. As head of the council's legal committee, al-Din said this week that a war tribunal could be ready to try Saddam in four to six months.

``Dara is an independent soul, a courageous man of great integrity,'' senior U.S. Circuit Judge Gilbert S. Merritt said this week from his home in Nashville, Tenn.

Merritt, who has 24 years on the federal bench, spent seven weeks in postwar Iraq interviewing al-Din and 28 other Iraqi Supreme Court justices. The Coalition Provisional Authority brought Merritt to Baghdad to make recommendations about whether or not to keep the justices and help repair Iraq's fractured judicial system.

``I went into the process believing that all of these judges would be patsies of the Baath Party. I thought I would recommend that they all be dismissed,'' Merritt said. ``I changed my opinion 180 degrees. I grew to admire many of them for the courage it took to try and maintain an independent and just system under very difficult conditions.''

Three days before the capture of Saddam, al-Din told reporters in a news conference that Iraq was prepared to proceed with war crimes charges against Saddam in absentia, to ``show the world the horror of the crimes committed against this people.''

Al-Din was in Iraq's new courthouse, an opulent place chosen by Merritt for its ornate reverence. It was Saddam's personal museum, which was looted but otherwise survived the war.

Iraq's appellate judges told Merritt that under Saddam they handled more than 300 death penalty cases each year and enforced about half of them. Unlike in the United States, Merritt said, in Iraq there is no public opposition today to the death penalty.

The war tribunal statute doesn't explicitly address capital punishment, but it states that penalties are in accordance with Iraqi law. Military law specialist Michael Noone of Catholic University reviewed the document and said this week that it allows for the death penalty.

Meanwhile, Saddam's eldest daughter Raghdad Hussein, who is living in Jordan, told Arab TV that her family plans to hire the best attorneys to defend Saddam. Raghdad, 35, said she hoped Iraqis would be allowed to conduct a trial independent of the United States.

Regardless, Merritt said, ``depending on the culpability of the defendant'' any war-crime trial in Iraq would likely include the possibility of death.

``And I would think Saddam Hussein is fairly culpable,'' he said.