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November 5, 2004

US Lost Evidence of Saddam's Abuses

by Jim Lobe

Crucial evidence of alleged human rights abuses that could be used in upcoming trials of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his top aides has apparently been lost or damaged due to U.S. neglect, says a report released Thursday.

While charges continue to fly that U.S.-led coalition forces failed to secure stockpiles of arms and explosives after invading Iraq, weapons now turned against them in the violence-ridden occupied nation, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Pentagon planners also did not protect potential evidence of massive rights abuses.

In a 41-page report, "Iraq: The State of the Evidence," the group charged that the failure to secure the evidence, particularly mass burial sites, has frustrated the efforts of families of thousands of relatives who were "disappeared" during Hussein's rule to recover records or remains.

"Given what's at stake here, the extent of this negligence is alarming," said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa Division.

"The U.S. and Iraqi authorities were aware that these documents and remains would be crucial to the prosecution of Saddam Hussein and other former officials, but they did little to safeguard them," she added in a statement.

The report comes at a time of some uncertainty about the fate of the Iraqi Special Tribunal (IST), the body created in December 2003 by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to take up a range of crimes allegedly committed by the Iraqi ex-dictator, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

The IST's administrator, Salem Chalabi, was summarily fired by Iraq's interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi earlier this summer, apparently for political reasons. Allawi has called for expediting the planned trials of Hussein, who was captured last December, and some two dozen of his top aides.

In a second blow to the IST, the United Nations last month refused a request by Allawi and the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to assist the tribunal in its work.

The world body declined because defendants who are convicted by the IST could face the death penalty and because, in the view of UN experts who have worked on war-crimes tribunals for Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone, its procedures do not meet minimum international standards of justice.

The tribunal's founding statute, for example, allows for defendants' attorneys to be excluded from interrogations and even court appearances and also permits the admission of testimony obtained under coercion. HRW, as well as other independent human rights groups, have also called the tribunal "fundamentally flawed."

That Hussein and his henchmen ruled with exceptional brutality is widely accepted, although many of his victims fell in wartime – probably about one million Iraqis and Iranians during the bloody war the two Gulf powers waged between 1980 and 1988.

As many as 100,000 more – mostly Iraqi soldiers – are believed to have been killed during the 1991 Gulf War over Kuwait.

But the former leader's killing of real or suspected dissidents, including the murder of as many as 70,000 Kurds during the notorious Operation Anfal during the Iraq-Iran war and another 30,000 to 60,000 Shi'ites in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War, are also notorious.

Altogether, Hussein is believed to be responsible for the executions of as many as 250,000 civilians since his Ba'ath Party took power in 1968.

The documentary records of these abuses were left largely intact by Iraqi officials as U.S. and coalition forces made their way to Baghdad in March and April 2003. Since the invasion, more than 250 mass graves that hold the remains of thousands of victims have been identified throughout the country.

But HRW noted that in the weeks and months that followed the invasion, U.S. and coalition forces failed to prevent people from looting thousands of documents or to keep relatives of "disappeared" persons from digging up remains found in many of the grave sites.

Moreover, once seized with the problem of disappearing evidence, the coalition proved slow to secure the offices and deploy forensic experts to the graves in order to excavate, exhume and classify the remains, both to ensure that families could know the fate of their relatives and that the evidence obtained could be used in a court of law.

The situation has not much improved since Allawi's government took over last June, adds the report, which called on him to set up a joint Iraqi and international Commission for Missing Persons to establish effective procedures for securing what documentary and forensic evidence remains.

"The extent of the negligence with which key documentary and forensic evidence has been treated to date is surprising, given that the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi authorities alike knew that trials of Hussein and key Ba'ath government officials would be important landmarks in Iraq's political recovery, that successful trials require solid evidence and that, as international experience has shown, preserving trial-ready evidence is a difficult task," the report said.

Still, it continued, "It is not too late to assume custody of millions of additional pieces of evidence [that] may prove critical in the proceedings of the upcoming trials."

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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