NEW YORK – When Saddam Hussein (search) is indicted on criminal charges, it will be by people he committed countless atrocities against during his 30-year dictatorship.
Iraq took legal custody of Saddam from the U.S. Army on Wednesday and made his first court appearance Thursday where he was slapped with seven preliminary charges.
What exactly those charges will be however, is unclear — especially since the so-called "Butcher of Baghdad" not only oversaw the murders of Iraqis, but of Kurds, Iranians, Kuwaitis and others. A formal indictment with specific charges is expected later, said Salem Chalabi, the director of the Iraqi Special Tribunal that will try Saddam. The trial isn't expected until 2005.
"It's going to take a while to prepare complicated trials like that," said Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (search). "In one sense, you have so many crimes to choose from, which ones are you going to accuse him of?"
Saddam will be tried by the Iraqi Special Tribunal (search), which covers four types of crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and violations of specific Iraqi laws, including trying to manipulate judges, squandering of public assets and funds and the "threat of war or use of the armed forces of Iraq against an Arab country," a crime in Iraq since 1958.
One of the seven preliminary charges presented to Saddam Thursday, for example, was invading Kuwait.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Saddam's most obvious act of genocide appears to have been the Anfal campaign against the Iraqi Kurds (search), which occurred from 1987 to 1989. According to estimates from Human Rights Watch and other international groups, the brutal tactics used by Saddam's regime then resulted in the deaths of about 100,00 civilians and the destruction of more than 4,00 villages.
Chemical weapons were used to kill thousands, most notable in the Kurdish town of Halabja. The former Iraqi leader is also believed to have ordered the forced expulsion of thousands of Kurds and other ethnic minorities from areas in northern Iraq during a widespread "Arabization" campaign.
As for crimes against humanity, Saddam's regime was known to employ murder, torture and unlawful imprisonment on a regular basis.
The Baathists (search) conducted large-scale killings after the failed 1991 uprising in the Kurdish north and Shiite south, resulting in the deaths of thousands. The regime also repressed and destroyed the society of the so-called Marsh Arabs, who lived for centuries in the south. In total, about 300,000 or more Iraqis are believed to have been unlawfully killed during Saddam's regime and buried in mass graves around the country, according to human rights groups.
And for war crimes, the 1949 Geneva Conventions (search) spell out the rules of modern warfare.
Saddam's use of chemical weapons against the Iranians in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war would be a war crime under this agreement. Other "grave" violations under this rule include intentional attacking or bombarding of civilians, denying a fair trial to a prisoner of war, torture, murder and inhumane treatment of civilians and prisoners.
"There is an embarrassment of evidence here" against Saddam, said Barbara Comstock, a former Justice Department spokeswoman, adding that human rights groups around world have documented the atrocities. "Saddam Hussein himself has left a trail, through videos, through pictures, of his atrocities."
"There's certainly no paucity of evidence what Saddam Hussein perpetrated not just on his own people but others," added Stan Brand, former U.S. House general counsel, who added that the biggest hurdle to trying Saddam will be the "winnowing down" of all his crimes to present a prosecution theory "that can be understood not just by jurors but by the public."
Jonathan Winer, former deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement, said it's vital to get every piece of evidence possible against Saddam to present at trial — whether the legal proceedings take days, weeks or even years. He noted that 50 people have been traveling around Iraq since it was liberated last year, looking for evidence of these crimes, and that officials have been trying to get Tariq Aziz (search) — Saddam's former deputy prime minister — to testify.
"I hope there will be victims testifying in public so that the Iraqi people and the world can see what happened … so the world can see not only Saddam Hussein's atrocities but also a fair process by which he's held accountable," Winer said. And "I don't think there's anything wrong with the trial going on for days, weeks, years … if that's what the Iraqi people want."
Saddam's trial likely will resemble a murder trial in France, since Iraqi law is based on the French civil law system (search) but it basically a hodgepodge of judicial elements from around the world. Brand and others noted that pre-Saddam, Iraqi did utilize a jurisprudence and judicial system that was run by Iraqis.
"I assume those people will return to the system who, in a sense were ejected by Saddam during the dictatorship," Brand said.
Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice (search), said that, "for every question, there are question marks here" as to how the trial will work. There's no set way to proceed with such a trial quite yet.
What is known is that investigative judges will collect evidence, which will be handed off to prosecutors and defense attorneys, who will present their case to a panel of five tribunal judges. A simple majority of the judges must agree on the final ruling, which can be appealed to a nine-member appeals chamber.
"A lot of that is going to be done on-the-fly if not close to it," Fidell said. "I think it's a critical first test for the Iraqi government."
Experts said they hoped the Iraqi government decided to put cameras or some sort of audio-recording equipment in the courtroom so that all of Iraq can watch and/or listen to the proceedings. FOX News confirmed Wednesday that the proceedings will be taped.
"The aspiration obviously is to have a fair and open proceeding," Fidell said. "I think one of the most important things in this entire proceeding should be the type of thing to generate confidence in the effective public, mainly the Iraqi people above all … I think the idea of having television coverage is a critical one."
Greg Noone, former Navy judge advocate, said he wouldn't be surprised if the tribunal did in fact televise the entire trial and that the government re-instated the death penalty — a punishment that was shelved during the last 15 months that the coalition was running the country.
"They want to make sure that everyone sees that it's fair and impartial … and I think the rest of the world want Iraqis to do it," Noone said. "Truly for the Iraqi people, they want the death penalty because it's not over with Saddam until he's done."