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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Saddam Trial: Ensuring That Justice Is Done

Saddam Hussein's abject surrender disappointed his fast-dwindling band of supporters, who believe he should have sought the martyrdom he urged on others. But it also presented his captors with the challenge of bringing the toppled Iraqi dictator to justice on behalf of the millions who were victims of his horrendous crimes. Whether the U.S.-led coalition succeeds depends on where it tries him, the composition of the court, the processes that govern the proceedings and the penalty if convicted.

The location of the trial is easily settled: It must be in Iraq because that is closest to the crime scenes. There is no reluctance to try him there, as there was for Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. And there is the capability to stage the proceedings -- unlike in Rwanda where genocide had undermined the state.

But Hussein's trial cannot be left to the interim Iraqi government, for two reasons. First, it lacks legitimacy in the eyes of many Iraqis and others in the wider world, having been appointed by the coalition authorities.

Second, there is no independent and impartial criminal justice system in Iraq after 30 years of dictatorship. The most senior lawyers are either tainted by association with the Baathist regime, or returned exiles who cannot be dispassionate.

In the similar circumstances of Sierra Leone, a special court has been created under UN auspices to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity. Staffed by a mix of local and international judges and lawyers, it guarantees protection for victims and witnesses. A similar court would provide Iraqis with involvement in the process, while ensuring the highest international standards of justice. The trial must be open -- a full hearing of the crimes Hussein is accused of that allows him to present a defense. This will not always be comfortable for the U.S.-led coalition, since he will highlight the international support for his war against Iran. It will also require skill to avoid the trial becoming bogged down in detail and thus overlong.

Unlike other countries where firm proof of crimes against humanity has been elusive, Iraq appears to have plenty of documentary evidence of the government's actions. Nonetheless, the judges must not lose sight of the purpose of such a trial: to call a country's leader to account for crimes committed in his name.

Finally, few would mourn were a guilty verdict to lead to a death sentence for Hussein. Yet countries that have opposed the death penalty elsewhere must not acquiesce lightly in its use in Iraq merely because it is legal there. The Iraqi people need a new start, with respect for human rights and justice. The execution of their former dictator would be a return to the violence and retribution that must now be put behind them.

This comment is excerpted from an editorial in the Financial Times.