Iraqis Take Legal Custody of Hussein

Times Staff Writers

Iraq’s new government took legal custody of jailed former President Saddam Hussein today and moved to reinstate the death penalty after more than a year’s suspension in preparation for today’s arraignment of 12 past regime figures on charge of genocide and war crimes.

The government of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi also took steps toward invoking a state of emergency to give police broader powers to improve security and lure Iraqi supporters of the anti-occupation insurgency away from more radical foreign and domestic militants.

Rebels lobbed at least 10 mortar rounds at a U.S. military base near Baghdad airport today, wounding 11 soldiers in a morning attack. But the day on which the handover of sovereignty was originally scheduled to take place was remarkably devoid of the car bombings and armed attacks that have killed hundreds in the weeks leading up to the restoration of self-rule.

On a day proclaimed Iraq’s new independence holiday, there was no fresh word on the fate of two American soldiers held hostage by insurgents.

An Arabic TV network claimed a day earlier to have videotape showing the execution of Spec. Keith Matthew Maupin of Batavia, Ohio, but military investigators examining the grainy tape have been unable to identify its subject and no bodies have been discovered, as has occurred shortly after previous killings of coalition forces.

The U.S.-led multinational force, as the coalition troops are called now that the civilian occupation administration has departed, has reclassified the disappearance of Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun from “missing” to “captured.”

A native of Lebanon last seen with his unit on June 19, Hassoun appeared blindfolded with a sword at the back of his head in a videotape shown on Al Jazeera TV late Sunday. His captors threatened to behead him if the U.S.-led occupation force failed to release all Iraqi prisoners in its custody within 72 hours.

Hussein, the leader of a brutal regime for 35 years, is expected to be arraigned on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, as well as other misdeeds, according to lawyers involved in the case. He is likely to be tried for the use of chemical weapons in the 1988 attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, the Anfal massacre of Kurds in the north the same year, and crimes related to Iraq’s 1980-88 war with Iran and to the violent suppression of a Shiite Muslim uprising in southern Iraq in 1991.

Though the transfer of custody and arraignment represent the new Iraqi government’s commitment to bringing the old one to justice, they are just the first steps in what is likely to be many months and probably a year or more of legal proceedings.

The arraignment will be held in a courtroom before an Iraqi investigative judge who will present the initial charges against Hussein and inform him of his rights, including remaining silent and retaining counsel. Hussein is permitted to hire lawyers from outside Iraq, and there are reports that at least one foreign defense team, from France, might represent him. Under Iraqi law, the government will pay for Hussein’s counsel if he is unable to afford the costs.

Among those scheduled to be arraigned with Hussein are former Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz and Ali Hassan Majid, also known as “Chemical Ali,” said Salem Chalabi, the executive director of the Iraqi Special Tribunal created to handle the trials. Majid is alleged to have been among those responsible for gassing the Kurds at Halabja.

The arraignment will be televised and is expected to show Hussein and others in chains as they walk into the courtroom to hear the charges — a dramatic and graphic display of how far from power they have fallen. Once the arraignment is complete, their status will be changed from prisoners of war to criminal detainees under Iraqi law. In general, prisoners of war have fewer rights and aren’t charged with a crime.

The detainees will remain in American military custody until Iraqis have a secure prison facility, Allawi said. The concern is that unless the facility is secure, relatives of Hussein’s victims might attempt to take justice into their own hands or, alternatively, supporters of the former dictator might attempt to help him escape.

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