Survivors of Halabja gassing prepare to testify against Saddam

WHEN Saddam Hussein arrives in a Baghdad courtroom tomorrow to face genocide charges over a murderous campaign conducted against Kurds in northern Iraq, the witnesses will be hoping for a fairer hearing than those in his first trial.
Attempts to prove Saddam’s guilt over the killings of 148 men in the Shi’ite village of Dujail in 1982 descended into chaos as three lawyers were murdered and the defence team and chief judge walked out. The former dictator railed repeatedly against judges and witnesses from the dock before boycotting the proceedings and going on hunger strike.
The trial, which began last October, dragged on through a series of adjournments, culminating in a long wait for a verdict that, even now, is not expected before October.
The Kurds who survived Saddam’s persecution nearly 20 years ago, including the gassing of Halabja in which 5,000 people were killed, have been warned that their long wait for justice may result in similar frustration. A human rights group said last week that the court lacks the ability to conduct the trial.
“Based on extensive observations of the tribunal’s conduct of its first trial . . . Human Rights Watch believes that the Iraqi High Tribunal is presently incapable of fairly and effectively trying a genocide case,” the group said in a report.
The charge sheet for the second trial is written in the unemotional language of international law: Saddam and six other Iraqi leaders are accused of genocide and crimes against humanity for their role in the deaths of more than 100,000 Kurds in the 1988 Operation Anfal, Arabic for “spoils of war”.
The language of the survivors of that operation is far more raw. They remember that entire Kurdish villages were erased from the map and that tens of thousands of men were carted off in army trucks, never to be seen again.
The worst nightmares are suffered by those who lived through Saddam’s attack on Halabja in March 1988, when planes fired missiles containing a toxic mixture of mustard gas and nerve agents.
Last week Aras Akram, who is due to testify in the trial, broke down as he described the attack. He was 19 and lived with his father, mother and 11 brothers and sisters. All died from the gas; he survived only because he had been hurt in an initial missile attack and had been taken to a shelter.
“I was injured in the back and bleeding badly. When my mother and my nine-year-old sister found me, my mother started crying. I told her to go back to my uncle’s because I thought I would die and I didn’t want her to see me die.”
He is now married with three children, but the memories are more vivid than his daily life. “At 2am we heard an explosion that was different — light and low — and there was a new smell and our eyes became red.” Ironically, an Iraqi army officer in the shelter may have saved him. “The officer told us they were using chemical weapons and sprayed us with water.”
Akram escaped to Iran, where he was injected with an antidote, and returned to Halabja days later. “At my uncle’s house I saw dead bodies on a truck,” he said. “I saw my sister’s foot sticking out. The driver knew me and tried to make me go away. I said, ‘Please, I want to be sure they are my family’. They were all my family.”
Those who met Saddam at the time say he and his regime felt no remorse. Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish leader and now a member of the Iraqi parliament, took part in talks with Saddam and his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majeed, known as Chemical Ali, that led to an uneasy peace between the government and the Kurds.
“I asked Ali Hassan al- Majeed, ‘Where are the missing 182,000?’ “Chemical Ali said, ‘182,000 — where did you get that number? We didn’t take any more than 100,000’.”
Asked privately by Othman why he had attacked Kurdish villages, al-Majeed is said to have replied: “I was only doing my duty and executing orders.”
Human Rights Watch doubts that such evidence will be heard in an orderly way. “None of the Iraqi judges and lawyers has shown an understanding of international criminal law,” its report said. “The court’s administration has been chaotic and inadequate.”

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