Human rights advocates and lawyers say Iraq's hush-hush legal proceedings against Saddam Hussein's (search) ousted regime and the secrecy leading up to the investigative hearings that began late last week threaten to undermine the legitimacy of the trial process.

First, they complain, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) surprised many by announcing the trials of several of Saddam's former regime members would begin sooner than had been expected, although no date was ever set.

Then, a judge made similarly unexpected news — announcing without notice Saturday that two high-profile defendants had already been interrogated. Ali Hassan al-Majid (search), better known as "Chemical Ali" for his role in poison gas attacks against the Kurdish minority, and former Defense Minister Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmad appeared on that day at a preliminary hearing by investigative Judge Raad al-Juhyi.

Under Iraqi law the investigative hearings are the first step toward a trial. But the timing of the court appearances — just ahead of Jan. 30 general elections — has prompted accusations the legal procedings were being expedited to boost Allawi's political standing.

"There is no transparency and everything is mysterious," complained Badee Izzat Aref, lawyer of former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz (search), one of Saddam's top lieutenants who has been jailed for over a year.

"They [the judges] are under pressure from the executive authority because of the elections."

Al-Juhyi provided few details about the investigative hearings, but said defense lawyers were present with their two clients. The exact date of the hearings wasn't previously announced and no press was invited. Footage of the proceedings was later released.

Judges and officials have not given a date for the start of the criminal trials or released any information on whether Saddam's aides will be tried individually or jointly.

The process has been criticized by foreign trial monitors.

"If the whole judicial process is going to have credibility and legitimacy, the government needs to be much more forthcoming with information about the rights that the accused are being given," Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said before Saturday's hearings.

It wasn't even clear what kind of access defense lawyers had been given to their clients, he noted.

Allawi's brief announcement Tuesday that the judicial proceedings would start in a matter of days left many questions unanswered, including whether Saddam himself was going to be among those to appear in court.

"So far, we know nothing about the trials. No one knows how they took the decision or who took the decision," to start the process now, said Mahmoud Othman, a prominent Kurdish politician. "Suddenly they break the news and provide no explanation. People won't take it seriously."

Bahar Ahmed, a Kurd who lost her father and about 50 relatives in 1988 chemical attacks in the Kurdish town of Halabja, said the victims deserved more information.

"I'd like to know what happens in these closed hearings so that I could satisfy my need for revenge," she said.

The government may have been under pressure to demonstrate it has made progress in the cases of the high-profile detainees, some of whom were detained 20 months ago.

"The timing of these announcement by the government suggests a link with the political aspirations of Prime Minister Allawi," Dicker said. "To be fair and to be credible, these trials need to be independent of political pressure and political objectives."

Allawi's spokesman, Thair al-Naqeeb, denied the government had anything to do with setting the trial dates, saying a judicial committee had established them.

"This is a judicial process, not a political one," deputy prime minister Barham Saleh told Al-Arabiya television. He said the trials themselves were expected to be held in public.

He said preparations for prosecuting Saddam required more time and no action was expected before next year.

Still, some — including members of Allawi's own Cabinet — criticized initiating the procedures by an unelected authority. Even though the actual trials will probably be held after the Jan. 30 elections, lawyers argue that investigative hearings held before the vote would widely be perceived as illegitimate.

"However horrific the crimes of which these men are accused, justice requires respecting their rights to a fair trial," Dicker said. "Otherwise it will be just a continuation of the way it was under [Saddam's] regime, with the only change being who is in the dock."