Putting former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in court on charges of war crimes is a trial in itself for the country.
The Baghdad hearing is a litmus test for the new Iraq, which is also waiting for the results of the constitution referendum. The way judicial proprieties are observed is a test of the future Iraq will enjoy. It may reveal what sovereignty will mean to Iraq and its people.
Saddam and seven others face an Iraqi court created to try the former leader and his associates. The trial will start by examining the murder of 140 people in the Shia town of Dujail in the aftermath of a 1982 attempt on Saddam's life. If convicted, the guilty will be sentenced to the gallows.
Other cases are expected to be raised at the trial including the Anfal Operation, a military crackdown on the Kurds in the late 1980s that killed 180,000 people; the suppression of Kurdish and Shi'ite revolts in 1991, and the deaths of 5,000 Kurds in a 1988 poison gas attack on the village of Halabja.
The trial may drag on for months. The crux of the matter is how Saddam and his henchmen will be treated.
That advisers from the United States have played a leading role in setting up the tribunal has laid it open to the charge of illegitimacy and a lack of independence.
The five judges were chosen by the United States two years ago.
American, British and Australian officials have lent expertise and paid for many of the costs involved. Legal scholars from several US law schools have advised the Iraqi judges, and mock trials were staged in Britain to prepare for trials in Iraq. Much of the cost of the trial has come from the US$128 million allocated by the US Congress to investigate and prosecute members of the former Iraqi regime.
The trial of Saddam and his aides needs to be conducted, provided the basic norms of a fair trial are observed.
What makes any trial fair, and ensures justice, is strict compliance with international standards on the administration of criminal justice.
There are hordes of Iraqis who want to see Saddam dead. However, justice, rather than revenge, should seal his fate.
It is time for the tribunal to clear up doubt over whether the judges are liable to get carried away by some kind of "justice of victory."
A fair trial for Saddam will be clear evidence of the re-establishment of law and order in the country. The conduct exhibited at these proceedings will do much to shape the image of the new Iraq in the rest of the world.
Saddam's case is complex. In basic terms, the trial is an effort to bring a toppled regime to book with high-ranking former officials as its representatives. It is part of the Iraqis' full removal of the remnants of the old regime. If Iraqis want to fulfill their dreams, they need to rebuild their country in an internationally acceptable manner.
Still, support for their endeavors from other nations should encourage them to move in this direction.
Preparations for the trial have been chaotic and shrouded in secrecy - an obvious sign of the country's instability and persistent security fears. Iraqi officials were keeping the location of the trial secret as late as Tuesday.
So many questions need to be answered, which will no doubt leave the country open to further instability.
It is questionable whether Saddam will be executed if found guilty in the Dujail case, as most would say he should be spared to stand trial for other crimes.
By putting Saddam and his officials on trial, the new Iraqi Government wants to hold the former regime accountable and thus herald the beginning of a brighter era.
It is hoped the high drama of the trial many believe will help to turn the page on a dark past will not flip the pages of history open at another period of chaos.
(China Daily October 20, 2005)