Global Policy Forum

The Iraq Tribunal:


The capture of Saddam Hussein on December 13, 2003 prompted a worldwide debate about how best to try him and other top Baath Party leaders. On August 11, 2005, the Iraqi Transitional National Assembly approved a war crimes tribunal in Iraq, which was originally established by the US-installed Iraqi Governing Council.

Picture Credit: Getty Images
The court was mandated to prosecute numerous high level members of the former Iraqi regime who are accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide, but the main focus was on the most high-profile defendant: Saddam Hussein.

From the inception of the court, human rights groups and legal experts questioned the impartiality and competence of Iraq's judicial system and so hoped for an internationally-organized tribunal with significant domestic participation, similar to the Special Court for Sierra Leone. However, critics often charged that the court would degenerate into "political show trials" because of frequent government interference in proceedings, as well as heavy US involvement in the court's operations.

On November 5, 2006, the court found Saddam Hussein guilty of the 1982 massacre that took place in Dujail, north of Baghdad and sentenced him to death. He was hanged on December 30, 2006. The United Nations, human rights organizations and anti-capital punishment activists around the world all condemned the execution of Saddam Hussein and his co-defendants. In a separate trial that took place a week after the former Iraqi leader's execution, the court dropped all charges against him for his role in the killing of 180,000 Kurds during the 1980s. The US and UK backed Saddam in the Iraq-Iran war, providing Iraq with satellite intelligence, arms, money as well as chemical and bio-weapon precursors. Some critics claim that the US wanted to accelerate the execution to prevent Saddam from implicating key US officials in the second trial.

While focus by the media on the tribunal waned after Saddam's death, criminal proceedings against other former senior Iraqi government officials continued. This section provides information on the Iraq Special Tribunal's high-level trials and follows discussions on their implications on international justice and criminal law.

Also see our special section on Iraq
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Iraq Special Tribunal - Fair Trials Not Guaranteed (May 13, 2005)

In this report, Amnesty International (AI) lays out the ways in which the Iraqi Special Tribunal falls short of international legal standards for war crimes courts. Among the statute's many shortcomings, AI points out the omission of the basic right to a fair trial. Ultimately, AI

urges multilateralism in bringing Iraqi war criminals to justice.

The Statute of the Iraqi Special Tribunal (December 10, 2003)

On December 10, 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) established the Iraqi Special Tribunal. Although the CPA no longer rules Iraq, the Statute is still important for its historical value; it also illustrates the profound effect the CPA had on the development of Iraqi law.


2007 | 2006 | 2005

Ten Lessons from the Saddam Trial (February 14, 2007)

Although the Iraqi High Tribunal is officially a domestic court, behind the scenes the US drafted the Court's statute and directs the collection of evidence as well as the Court's financial and security matters. The US, as the occupying force in Iraq, should not be the only country assisting the Tribunal, but other countries must also give legal and administrative support on the condition that the death penalty is not used. (Grotian Moment)

Did Saddam Die for Our Sins? (January 9, 2007)

The US-backed Iraq Tribunal sentenced Saddam Hussein to death for his role in the 1982 massacre of nearly 150 Shiites in Dujail, Iraq. But the same court has dropped all charges against Hussein, post mortem, for the killing of 180,000 Kurds during the 1980s – crimes committed with Western complicity. The author of this TomPaine piece concludes that if the tribunal does not look into US and British involvement in the genocide case, it will fail "to educate the world about Saddam and his barbarous regime."

Saddam Hanging Boosts Case for International Criminal Court (January 6, 2007)

According to this Inter Press Service article, the International Criminal Court could have "averted the numerous flaws" that marked the Iraq Tribunal's criminal proceedings against Saddam Hussein. Instead, the US – a staunch ICC opponent as well as the main occupying power in Iraq – played a big role in setting up the special court, whose legitimacy and neutrality often came into question. The author argues that the widely-criticized judicial process in the former Iraqi dictator's case highlights the need for an international forum to deliver justice.

2006 | 2005

The Low Profile: CNN and the New York Times Execute a Denial of History (December 31, 2006)

This Electronic Iraq article argues that the Saddam Hussein execution coverage by mainstream US media outlets biased. The media failed to depict US support for Hussein's regime during the 1980s, focusing instead on portraying him as an "evil dictator" that the US deposed. The article concludes that such censorship is designed to "reassure Americans" that they really are blameless participants in "a cosmic struggle against ‘evil.'"

Rule of Noose (December 31, 2006)

The trial and hasty execution of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein failed to deliver truth, accountability and, least of all, reconciliation, reports The Nation. The criminal proceedings against Hussein represented an opportunity to establish the rule of law in Iraq and possibly bring relief to survivors of his brutal regime. Instead, the highly-politicized judicial process remained "in tune with everything else askew in American-occupied Iraq."

Saddam's Death Sentence Exposes a Rift (December 28, 2006)

While some world leaders shied away from rejecting the US-backed Iraq Tribunal's decision to execute Saddam Hussein, others joined human rights groups in deploring the sentence. This International Herald Tribune article points out, however, that most protesters dispute the "morality" of capital punishment but not necessarily the fairness of the former Iraqi dictator's trial.

Expert on Judiciary Expresses Concern About Saddam Hussein Trial and Verdict (November 6, 2006)

In this statement, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers outlines his objections to the Iraq Tribunal's proceedings against former President Saddam Hussein. Many legal experts speculate that the guilty verdict – delivered by a court set up after an illegal invasion and largely financed by the United States – will likely have a negative impact on the security situation in Iraq. The UN official, Leandro Despouy, demands that the international community set up a tribunal to uphold standards of impartiality and fairness, and advance the rule of law in the country. (United Nations)

Saddam's Death Won't Close Pandora's Box (November 6, 2006)

US President George W. Bush called it a "great day for the Iraqis" when their former ruler Saddam Hussein received the death sentence for his role in the 1982 Dujail massacre. Yet many observers see the trial and verdict as "an irrelevant sideshow" to the violence and bloodshed that have intensified since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. This Daily Star - Lebanon article suggests that Saddam's execution will deepen the divide between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in Iraq and will have little impact on the insurgency against the occupying forces.

This Was a Guilty Verdict on America as Well (November 6, 2006)

The US-backed Iraq Special Tribunal sentenced the country's former ruler and "one-time [US] ally" Saddam Hussein to death by hanging – a verdict which came as no surprise to many. The court sought to bring Saddam to justice for crimes against humanity, but failed to acknowledge past US and British administrations' roles in facilitating these crimes. For decades, Washington provided economic and military support – including chemical weapons stocks – to Saddam's regime. Therefore, in light of the court's ruling and its positive reception in Washington, the author of this Independent opinion piece asks, "Have ever justice and hypocrisy been so obscenely joined?"

November Surprise? (October 17, 2006)

This article in The Nation ponders why the US media largely ignored the announcement by the US-supported Iraq Special Tribunal that it would not deliver a verdict in the trial of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein until November 5, 2006 - two days before US voters go to the polls for midterm elections. The article suggests that the Bush administration gained popularity immediately following other major events in Iraq such as the capture of Saddam Hussein and wants to replicate that surge in popularity to ensure Republicans continue to control the US Congress.

The Big Question: Is Saddam Hussein Getting a Fair Trial in Baghdad? (September 27, 2006)

This Independent piece analyzes the seemingly farcical trial of former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein. Critics say the Iraqi government's interference in the trial as well as its frequent public declarations of Saddam's guilt, despite his legal right to innocence until proven otherwise, discredit the Iraq Special Tribunal. Yet notwithstanding the "symbolic" nature of this high-profile case, the author notes that daily life in Iraq remains dire.

Judge Replaced in Saddam's Trial (September 19, 2006)

The Iraq Special Tribunal replaced the chief judge in the genocide trial of former ruler Saddam Hussein, reportedly at the behest of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's cabinet. The Iraqi government cited Chief Judge Abdullah al-Amiri's alleged bias toward the defense team as grounds for his dismissal. Such government interference raises doubts among legal experts about the court's neutrality and independence. (BBC)

Morality in Iraq, Then and Now (August 27, 2006)

This Washington Post opinion piece criticizes the historically inconsistent US policy towards Iraq. The author tracks US involvement in Iraq from the 1970s up until the trial of the country's former leader Saddam Hussein, which began in 2005. Although the US helped to set up the Special Iraq Tribunal, contributing to the exposure of some of these crimes, the author warns against overlooking US complicity with the Hussein regime.

Saddam Trial Adjourned to Resolve Boycott (July 11, 2006)

Citing security concerns and the tribunal's supposed lack of respect for international law, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's legal team refused to appear in court for the final phase of his trial. The Special Iraq Tribunal denounced the boycott as a diversionary tactic to "give the defense more time" to prepare its closing statements. If Hussein's attorneys do not resume their duties, the court will appoint replacement lawyers, furthering concerns about the fairness of the proceedings. (Associated Press)

Saddam's Execution Likely, Fair Trial Less So (June 26, 2006)

Legal experts challenge the fairness of the Iraq Tribunal, denouncing the court as "theater" rather than a legitimate institution that could strengthen the rule of law in the country. Human rights groups oppose the death penalty for Saddam Hussein and advocate his right to a free trial. Saleh Mutlaq of the Iraq Front for National Dialogue says that he supports the death penalty but only if an independent and impartial court passes that sentence. (Inter Press Service)

Lessons from the Milosevic Trial (April 26, 2006)

The author argues Slobodan Milosevic's trial taught international criminal tribunal prosecutors to "keep it simple" and "keep it free from posturing." The testimony of witnesses must not be a "cathartic exercise" or used to document history, but to test strictly legal and factual issues. Milosevic's trial convinced Iraq Tribunal prosecutors to concentrate on a few key events and try Saddam Hussein with specific charges. (Online Opinion)

Saddam's Trial: Playing the Genocide Card (April 11, 2006)

The coalition-supported Iraqi Tribunal charged former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with genocide to "morally justify" the decision to go to war. The charge of genocide was intended to introduce gravity into the proceedings, which had rapidly descended into the "Saddam show." The author writes that genocide indictments have increasingly become a "fall back charge made to cast retrospective legitimacy on acts of Western intervention," and reflect present political needs. At the time of the events that led to the genocide charge the US was keen to play down human rights abuses against the Kurds due to US support of Iraq in the war against Iran. (Spiked Online)

Hussein Charged with Genocide in 50,000 Deaths (April 5, 2006)

The Iraqi Court trying Saddam Hussein has charged the former Iraqi President with genocide for the military's murder of at least 50,000 Kurdish civilians in 1988, named the "Anfal Campaign." The case represents the first charge against Saddam for large-scale human rights violations that occurred during his regime. More charges are set to follow, with approximately a dozen investigations underway. It is not clear whether the genocide trial will occur concurrently with the ongoing "Dujail killings" trial. (New York Times)

Saddam Trial At Risk (January 27, 2006)

Human Rights Watch argues that the Iraqi government's intrusion in the trial of Saddam Hussein has compromised the independence of the judges. Iraqi parliamentarians called for the dismissal of Judge Rizgar Amin and his successor Judge Saeed al-Hammashi, creating the appearance of a court that is "continually subjected to political interference." The absence of two of the five judges who have heard witness testimony further damages the integrity of the trial.

2006 | 2005

Why Saddam's Trial is So Trying for the Coalition (December 7, 2005)

Commentators championed the prospective trial of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as the "trial of the century" but this author argues the result has turned into a sham. He claims the court lacks international legitimacy, impartiality and credibility. The coalition continues to distance itself from the trial and hence from the war and occupation itself. (Spiked)

Excerpts from Testimony in Saddam Trial (December 6, 2005)
One of the first witnesses in the trial of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein talks about the torture she experienced as a prisoner of Saddam's intelligence forces in the 1980s. Amidst the extreme politicization of the Iraqi Special Tribunal, the woman's testimony is a reminder that many Iraqis who suffered under Saddam's regime would benefit from a fair trial that brings him to justice. (Associated Press)

Hussein's Trial, Iraq's Future (December 4, 2005)
In this article the author questions whether the trial of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein can achieve goals of justice and the rule of law. The trial does not provide a wide enough opportunity for all victims of Saddam's reign to seek justice, and will inflame tensions rather than contribute to reconciliation. Interference and manipulation in the court by both Hussein and the current Iraqi government must cease for the trial to have any meaning. (Los Angeles Times)

Saddam on Trial: Ten Reasons Justice May Not Be Served (November 29, 2005)
The Independent presents a list of flaws in the trial of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Many of the defects stem from a fundamental problem: the tribunal violates international law. The tribunal's lack of a standard of proof for conviction, the failure to outlaw the death penalty, and the long detention of Saddam before the start of the trial contribute to its decreasing legitimacy.

Saddam's Trial: Names and Places (November 28, 2005)
The Associated Press compiled a list of key individuals and areas that figure prominently into former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's trial.

International Court's Canadian President Says Court Can't Try Saddam (November 8, 2005)
The defense team of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein declared that it will boycott the Iraqi Special Tribunal, following the murder of a second Saddam lawyer. Many experts reflected on other options for trying Saddam. Philippe Kirsch, the president of the International Criminal Court (ICC), dispelled the notion that Saddam could be tried through the ICC. Kirsch clarified that the ICC is only able to prosecute crimes that took place after the court's date of establishment, July 2002. (Macleans)

Court Rules Could Allow US to Force Saddam Tried in Secret (November 2, 2005)
The US was instrumental in establishing and funding the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal. In doing so, the US insisted on including a rule in the tribunal statute that protects Washington from publicly revealing its embarrassing historical complicity with Saddam's regime. According to the rule, any nation that deems its "national security" at risk because of tribunal testimony may order "closed sessions," the content of which would never be released to the public. (Index on Censorship)

Saddam on Trial (October 31, 2005)
Successful international criminal tribunals throughout history have shared one distinct characteristic: they have tried politically-defeated individuals. In contrast, former Iraq President Saddam Hussein still enjoys a great deal of support among Iraqis. Moreover, his trial is taking place in Iraq, which is still politically unstable and wracked with violent conflict. Thus, despite the best efforts of those involved, Saddam's trial is doomed to fail, and to "become part of the larger tragedy of Iraq." (New Yorker)

Saddam Wants Trial Moved to Hague (October 28, 2005)
Saddam Hussein and his defense team have escalated their efforts to delegitimize the Iraq tribunal, demanding that it be relocated to the Hague. The tribunal was already under fire from international human rights organizations, when the murder of a lawyer on Saddam's defense team fuelled doubts about the fairness of the trial. (Islam Online)

A Comparison of Saddam, Milosevic Trials (October 20, 2005)
As of October 19, 2005, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein are both on trial for crimes they committed during their respective terms as head of state. Although many are tempted to draw comparisons between the two, there are in fact many differences between the quests for justice for the former heads of government. This Associated Press article describes the distinctions.

Hussein Trial Put Off Amid Doubts About Fairness (October 19, 2005)
Saddam Hussein went to trial as scheduled on October 19, 2005, but tribunal judges promptly adjourned the trial until November 28, 2005, after Hussein entered a not-guilty plea. In the meantime, countless international justice experts were appalled by the court's proceedings. The tribunal is highly politicized, they say, and "designed to ensure that US complicity with Hussein's crimes will be excluded from real scrutiny." (Inter Press Service)

The Former Iraqi Government on Trial (October 16, 2005)
Human Rights Watch expresses grave concerns about the Iraq Tribunal and the trial of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The rules of the court do not meet standards of international law on several counts. For example, the tribunal statute does not provide protections for adequate defense of the accused, but it does allow judges to sentence defendants to death. Moreover, US influence continues to taint the court, leading many experts to believe that the tribunal is inherently biased.

Saddam Trial a Signal to Dictators (September 29, 2005)
In Zimbabwe, dictator Robert Mugabe rules with an iron fist. Numerous human rights organizations and governments have accused Mugabe of crimes against humanity. Mugabe's rule has also been notoriously marked by its censorship of Zimbabwe's free press. In this Zimbabwean Financial Gazette article, however, author Mavis Makuni appears to circumvent these restrictions and sends a concealed warning to Mugabe that the Saddam trial "should be a signal to other dictators and abusers of power worldwide that their day of reckoning will come too sooner or later."

Justice Within Limits (September 26, 2005)
Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago, reveals the political undertones of Saddam Hussein's trial. He points to the historical examples of Nuremberg and Japan after World War II and the dissolution of the Soviet Union as guides for successful post-conflict reconstruction through international justice. In Iraq, he says, judges should convict Saddam Hussein "on the narrowest grounds possible" so as to allow the rebuilding of Iraqi society to continue unimpeded by former-Baathists who fear their own prosecution and thus promote anarchy. (New York Times)

Baghdad Confirms Saddam Trial Date (September 3, 2005)
A spokesman for the Iraqi government confirmed that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's trial will begin on October 19, 2005. Meanwhile, Saddam's daughter confirmed that she has rebuilt her father's defense team, following the dismissal of most of the former president's lawyers in August 2005. Saddam's new lawyers said that his trial is "a political one" and called the announcement of a trial date "nothing but a way to deceive the Iraqi people and prove that an Iraqi government and some legal organisations exist." (Al-Jazeera)

Saddam Could Face Execution (August 12, 2005)
Iraqi judges may sentence Saddam Hussein to death for his alleged role in the 1982 massacre of 150 Shiites in Dujail, Iraq, eliminating the need for future trials on other outstanding charges. A death sentence would present a difficult issue for the new Iraqi court system, and could potentially affect the relationship between Iraq and Western nations largely opposed to the death penalty. However, Hussein's daughter Raghad, who has taken over her father's legal handlings, has threatened that Hussein's lawyers will boycott all upcoming hearings and trials. She maintains that the individuals in charge of the Iraqi Special Tribunal have breached international law and the Geneva Conventions in her father's legal proceedings. (Associated Press)

Ignoring US, Chalabi Pursues Attempt to Fire Hussein Judge (July 27, 2005)
Despite Washington's opposition to the move, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi calls for the dismissal of a prominent Iraq Special Tribunal judge due to his Baathist past. While Chalabi maintains that he wishes to uphold the court's credibility, some critics view the measure as a political calculation aimed at shielding his new partner Moktada al-Sadr. (New York Times)

Iraqi-run Tribunal Is Major Progress toward Democratic Rule of Law (July 19, 2005)
According to this Christian Science Monitor article, the Iraq Special Tribunal goes far beyond being a simple court to try Saddam Hussein. The locally-run tribunal, the authors argue, has paramount importance in setting new standards for the country's self-rule and demonstrating the legitimacy of the new government.

Iraq: Focus on Forthcoming Trial of Saddam Hussein (June 28, 2005)
The Iraqi government announced that Saddam Hussein would only answer to 12 cases of crimes against humanity among the more than 500 charges against him. Hussein's defense lawyers claim that "all actions by him were just a way to prevent destabilization of the country," but if found guilty of the 12 charges, the former dictator will surely receive the maximum sentence applicable. Despite the limited number of charges, those involved in the trials don't believe they will end by Baghdad's target date of December 2005. (Integrated Regional Information Networks)

Saddam Trial to Open with Village Massacre (June 7, 2005)
The trial of Saddam Hussein will begin with allegations of his involvement in a mass execution in the village of Dujail over twenty years ago. The prosecution will probably succeed in bringing this first of 14 charges against the former Iraqi dictator, due to an abundance of documentary evidence against Hussein, as well as perhaps over-zealous witnesses. (Guardian)

Rules of Procedure and Evidence Missing Key Protections (April 22, 2005)
The Iraqi Special Tribunal has adopted its Rules of Procedure and Evidence, but Human Rights Watch (HRW) has found that they lack vital fair trial protections and as a result the trials will not comply with international standards of justice. Specifically, the Rules allow in absentia trials, do not recognize the right to representation upon arrest and do not require the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. HRW urges the tribunal to amend them.

Hussein Judge Steps Out of the Shadows (March 22, 2005)
Raid Juhi is the first judge of the Iraq Tribunal to publicly reveal his identity, which he sees as an important move in promoting the court's legitimacy to the Iraqi public. In his role as chief investigating judge, it was Juhi's team that determined there was sufficient evidence to prosecute Saddam Hussein and 11 of his officials. The defendants now face a five-member panel of judges for their trials. (Washington Post)

Judgment at Baghdad (March 12, 2005)
Amidst increasing doubts about the impartiality and competence of the Iraq Special Tribunal, this article from The Nation further questions the court's independence. Specifically, it criticizes the "go-it-alone mentality" that the US employed in the creation of the tribunal and queries US complicity in many of the war crimes on trial. The article also predicts the Bush administration will use the trial of Saddam Hussein to "overshadow the chaos sowed by invasion and occupation."

Saddam Lawyer Seeks to Delay Tribunal (March 3, 2005)
Following the murder of a judge from the Iraq Tribunal, one of Saddam Hussein's lawyers has called for a year-long postponement in trial proceedings, citing escalating violence against tribunal members as his reason. The lawyer admits, however, that he "opposes the tribunal in principle" and claims it is illegal for any court to prosecute Saddam Hussein under Iraqi law. (Associated Press)

The War on Law Itself (February 24, 2005)
This Al-Ahram Weekly commentary condemns the Iraqi Special Tribunal as an incompetent and biased instrument of the US. It alleges that tribunal officials have violated international law by denying Saddam Hussein access to his lawyers, and further denounces the legitimacy of the court on the basis that the US-led invasion was illegal. In the author's opinion, the trials will promote "vengeance" over "justice."

War Crimes Trials Gear Up in Iraq (February 23, 2005)
Observers hope that trials for Iraq's former Baath party officials will encourage reconciliation and promote the rule of law. But some international law experts doubt the legitimacy of the Iraqi Special Tribunal because of US involvement in its establishment. A further "technical legal problem" arises over the fact that the court was set up at a time when a transitional group governed Iraq, without a constitution to authorize its jurisdiction. (Christian Science Monitor)

Trials of Some of Hussein's Aides to Start Within Weeks; His Is Expected in 2006 (February 10, 2005)
The televised hearings of some of Saddam Hussein's top government officers are scheduled to begin soon, but legal experts speculate that the trials will probably experience delays while the defendants' lawyers contest the Special Tribunal's legitimacy. The former Iraqi dictator himself will unlikely appear before the Iraq tribunal until 2006, and some observers predict that Hussein might "try to use his court appearances as a political platform" in the tradition of Slobodan Milosevic. The New York Times hopes the fact that the tribunal is a civil law court will minimize this.

Trials for Saddam Regime Members to Start (February 9, 2005)
According to an unnamed "legal expert," trials for some of Saddam Hussein's officials will likely begin in several weeks. Although the Iraqi Special Tribunal has not yet formally charged these former Baath party detainees, investigative judges will hand over their evidentiary findings to the five trial judges within weeks. This Associated Press article speculates that the tribunal may order the death penalty if the defendants are found guilty.

Saddam Lawyer Says He Has Witnesses to Testify Ex-Iraqi President Played No Role in Gassing of Kurds (January 17, 2005)
Saddam Hussein's legal representatives claim they have evidence to prove that the former Iraqi dictator was not involved in the 1988 gassing of 5,000 Kurds. This assertion is the first indication that Saddam's defense team has witnesses willing to testify on his behalf. Some observers hope the trials of Hussein and his top officials will begin after the January elections in Iraq, but the prosecution is likely to need more time to prepare. (Associated Press)


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