updated 2/9/2005 7:34:43 PM ET 2005-02-10T00:34:43

Televised trials for some of Saddam Hussein’s key henchmen are set to begin in several weeks before an Iraqi tribunal, which could hand down sentences of death by hanging or firing squad, a Western legal expert familiar with the process said Wednesday.

Investigative judges are close to delivering lengthy dossiers of affidavits, witness statements and other documents to a five-judge chamber that will run the trials, the legal expert told reporters in Baghdad on condition of anonymity.

He would not say which of Saddam’s 11 lieutenants were likely to face the Iraqi Special Tribunal first. Western and Iraqi officials have said they do not expect Saddam to be among the first to stand trial, at least partly because prosecutors may want to build a chain of responsibility from the bottom and hope some of the defendants cut deals to testify against him.

Judges question ‘Chemical Ali’ and general
In December, investigative judges summoned Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid — better known as “Chemical Ali” for his role in poison gas attacks against Iraq’s Kurdish minority — and the former defense minister, Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmad, to appear before them in closed-door preliminary hearings.

The tribunal, which is run according to Iraqi laws on criminal procedure, could sentence some of those found guilty to die by hanging or firing squad.

Saddam was captured in northern Iraq in December 2003, and others have been in custody for nearly two years. U.S. military officials transferred the 12 defendants to Iraqi custody in June with the handover of sovereignty. They have been held at an undisclosed location believed to be near Baghdad International Airport, west of the capital.

In July, a judge told the group that they were being investigated for crimes committed under the former regime. In Saddam’s case, he was informed that court officials were investigating him in the killings of rival politicians, the gassing of the Kurds in 1988, the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the brutal suppression of Kurdish and Shiite uprisings in 1991.

Formal charges will not come until the investigating judges refer the cases to the trial chamber. The first dossiers are expected to be delivered to trial judges, and formal proceedings are to begin within several weeks, the legal expert said.

Some of the evidence that is to be presented was recovered from about a dozen mass graves, he said. He refused to say where the graves were.

In October, investigators working for the tribunal unearthed more than 100 bodies from a mass grave near the northern village of Hatra. The dead were thought to be Kurds killed during Saddam’s crackdown in 1987 and 1988. It is believed that as many as 300 bodies, including those of men, women and children, were bulldozed into the trench.

Lawyers appointed and at work
All the defendants have met with their lawyers, some of whom had to be appointed by the Iraqi bar association because others refused to take the cases, he said. Saddam has a team of 10 Iraqi lawyers and several dozen others from abroad.

The proceedings will be open for television coverage, although probably with a video delay if the court orders broadcast curbs to protect witnesses.

Reporters will be allowed into the courtroom, and there will be a limited number of seats for the public in a viewing gallery behind bulletproof glass.

Unlike in the legal system in the United States, the Iraqi tribunal will have no jury; the verdicts and sentencing will be handed down through a majority decision of the five-judge panel.

The court will hear from victims, witnesses, a state prosecutor, defense witnesses and, in some cases, the defendants themselves. Some of the defendants will likely face more than one trial, as multiple crimes are usually brought to trial separately under Iraqi law.

Defendants have the right to appeal verdicts to a nine-judge appellate chamber.

The legal expert said that a witness protection program had been set up and that some would likely testify behind curtains to conceal their identities.

Some of the 400 staff of the Iraqi tribunal have received threatening letters and telephone calls, although none has quit as a result of intimidation or fear, he said.

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