By Niko Price
BAGHDAD, Iraq — Their exuberance over his capture still fresh, Iraqi leaders said Monday they want to send Saddam Hussein to a quick trial with an eye toward executing him by summer. But U.S. officials signaled the Iraqis may have to wait.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the world body would not support bringing Saddam before a tribunal that might sentence him to death, and human rights groups were appalled at the rush to a trial they said was crucial to starting a healing process in this war-shattered land.
Members of the U.S.-appointed Iraq Governing Council said Monday the trial would be televised in the interest of exposing Saddam’s atrocities and beginning a process of national healing. But some couldn’t hold back from declaring the verdict a done deal.
‘‘This man has killed hundreds of thousands of people. If he has to be killed once, I think he has to be resurrected hundreds of times and killed again,’’ said council member Mouwafak al-Rabii, a human rights activist who was imprisoned under Saddam.
Al-Rabii and other council members met with what they described as an unrepentant Saddam on Sunday, hours after his capture by U.S. troops. They said proceedings against the deposed dictator would begin soon in an Iraqi special tribunal written into law last week.
‘‘Very soon. In the next few weeks,’’ al-Rabii said. ‘‘We passed the law. We have almost agreed on most of the judges and prosecutors. We’re almost there. I can tell you, he’s going to be the first.’’
Council member Adnan Pachachi said he expected the trial would begin ‘‘sometime in March.’’ A third council member, Kurdish judge Dara Noor al-Din, offered a more conservative estimate: ‘‘Maybe four to six months.’’
But U.S. officials were just beginning to interrogate their captive on a laundry-list of subjects, including the insurgency that has killed hundreds of U.S. troops and his alleged weapons of mass destruction, the main rationale for the U.S.-led war. Iran, too, said it was preparing charges and expected Saddam to be tried before a ‘‘competent international court.’’
President Bush said in Washington that details still needed to be worked out before Saddam can be handed over to the Iraqis. He offered few specifics of how Saddam would be tried — or when.
‘‘We will work with Iraqis to develop a way to try him that will withstand international scrutiny,’’ he said.
But his language suggested he was more interested in the trial’s scope than in its speed.
‘‘All the atrocities need to come out and justice needs to be delivered,’’ he said.
Appearing to contradict earlier U.S. statements that officials would leave it to Iraqis to work out the details of their special tribunal, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher indicated the U.S. government now planned to play a major role in crafting the court.
Boucher said the State Department would send Pierre-Richard Prosper, its ambassador at large for war crime issues, to Baghdad early next year to work on setting up a court
He stressed provisions in the recently passed law to use international advisers to various court officials. ‘‘Obviously,’’ he said, ‘‘we will be consulting with them closely as they make the decisions as we can proceed to some sort of justice for Saddam Hussein.’’
Human rights groups were outraged by the Iraqi suggestions of a quick trial.
‘‘I find that extremely disturbing and distressing,’’ said Susannah Sirkin of Physicians for Human Rights in Boston. ‘‘It’s virtually unthinkable, and it would be a shame in terms of justice possibly being served.’’
Hanny Megally, of the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York, said it would be hard to imagine that any trial would be ready for prosecution before the end of 2004.
‘‘We would be very concerned to see a speedy trial within weeks or months,’’ he said. ‘‘The capacity of the Iraqi judiciary is clearly not up to what will be necessary for a major trial. They will need to be brought up to speed.’’
Investigators who have yet to be appointed will have to sift through documents — 300 million of them at last count, according to Noor al-Din — and examine evidence including some 270 mass graves that won’t even begin to be exhumed until the end of January.
The prosecution will have to draft a strategy, deciding which cases stand the best chance of convicting a man whose regime, by the most conservative estimates, killed 300,000 men, women and children during his 23 years as president.
‘‘If they want to try someone like Saddam for all the crimes that have been committed, we could end up with a 10-year trial,’’ Megally said.
But members of the Governing Council, a 25-member body appointed in July to rule Iraq, predicted a quick trial — and a quick execution, as soon as Iraq’s occupiers, who suspended the death penalty, pass sovereignty to a new Iraqi government.
‘‘We will get sovereignty on the 30th of June,’’ al-Rabii said. ‘‘I can tell you, he could be executed on the 1st of July.’’
Another council member, Ahmed Shya’a al-Barak, told Iraqi television a death sentence could be handed down even sooner, before the suspension of executions expires.
‘‘The court could sentence Saddam Hussein and execute him later,’’ he said, adding: ‘‘The least punishment Saddam Hussein should get is the capital punishment.’’
Annan, speaking at the United Nations, said he was encouraged by U.S. assurances that the former Iraqi dictator would be treated humanely — even though he never accorded such treatment ‘‘to those who fell into his hands.’’ But he cautioned against the death penalty.
‘‘In all the courts we have set up, (U.N. officials) have not included death penalty,’’ Annan said. ‘‘And so as secretary-general and the U.N. as an organization are not going to turn around and support a death penalty.’’
Despite their bravado, the council members pledged to conduct the trial under international legal standards, saying any conviction would stand up to scrutiny.
‘‘All the international standards should be implemented,’’ al-Rabii said. ‘‘He has to be given the right to employ the best lawyers in the world if he wants.’’
The current president of the council, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, said in Paris the tribunal would treat Saddam fairly. ‘‘The rights of the accused will be protected,’’ he said.
The human rights activists said the council members’ rush to trial could be an emotional reaction that will temper with time.
‘‘I imagine that in the light of day, those who actually have to martial the evidence may make them realize that the timeframe is not realistic,’’ Sirkin said.
Niko Price is correspondent-at-large for The Associated Press.