Almost two years after U.S. forces captured Saddam Hussein hiding in a hole in the ground on a farm near his home town of Tikrit, the former Iraqi president will appear Wednesday before a five-member panel of his countrymen in the first criminal case brought against him and seven Baath Party associates.
Iraqis blame Hussein for the deaths and torture of hundreds of thousands of citizens during nearly three decades in power. But he will face charges concerning a single incident, the execution of 143 men and boys from the predominantly Shiite Muslim town of Dujail, 35 miles north of the capital.
Prosecutors allege that Hussein ordered the killings as retaliation after gunmen fired on his motorcade in the town on July 8, 1982, in an attempt to assassinate him.
In addition to the executions, which occurred three years later at Abu Ghraib prison, more than 1,500 townspeople were arrested, prosecutors allege. Many were banished to desert prisons where families were crowded together in windowless cells for years. Bulldozers plowed over the fertile groves of orange and date palm trees that provided the primary livelihood for Dujail's residents.
Unlike Balkan leaders who have faced war crimes charges in a U.N. court in The Hague, Hussein will appear before the Iraqi Special Tribunal, a body established in December 2003 by U.S.-led occupation authorities. It will use a mixture of international law and Iraqi criminal law in conducting the trial, informs the Washington Post.
The ousted Iraqi leader and his co-defendants were expected to hear the charges against them in Wednesday's session. The session was to be held under tight security in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, home to Iraq's government, parliament and the U.S. and British Embassies.
If convicted, the men face the death penalty by hanging.
Prosecutors are preparing other cases to bring to trial against Saddam and his officials including for the Anfal Operation, a military crackdown on the Kurds in the late 1980s that killed some 180,000 people; the suppression of Kurdish and Shiite revolts in 1991; and the deaths of 5,000 Kurds in a 1988 poison gas attack on the village of Halabja.
If a death sentence is issued in the Dujail case, it is unclear whether it would be carried out regardless of whether Saddam is involved in other trials. He can appeal a Dujail verdict, but if a conviction and sentence are upheld, the sentence must be carried out within 30 days. A stay could be granted to allow other trials to proceed, reports the AP.