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The trial of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein began last week in Baghdad. While Hussein and seven others are the defendants of record, the real focus is the tribunal itself — its legitimacy and by extension, that of the current government in Iraq. Never before has justice been so important to Iraq.

The accused are being tried for their role in the 1982 killings in the village of Dujail. The prosecution alleges that men from the village tried to assassinate the Iraqi leader when his convoy passed through the town. In reprisal, Hussein ordered the torture and killing of 148 men from Dujail. It is also alleged that more than 1,500 townspeople were arrested and banished to desert prisons. Orange and date groves, the primary livelihood of village residents, were plowed over.

Although the death penalty is possible, this is likely to be only the first in a series of trials that attempt to hold Hussein accountable for the killings and imprisonment of tens of thousands of Iraqis during his 23-year reign. The current trial was held first because the evidence is reportedly the best; the prosecution has videotape showing the Iraqi leader interrogating four men from the village.

True to form, Hussein was a quarrelsome and imperious defendant. He refused to acknowledge the authority of the tribunal, claimed to still be Iraq’s rightful ruler and finally, when pressed, said he was “not guilty” when charged with committing crimes against humanity. He scuffled with his guards and the trial was then adjourned for 40 days to allow the defense to better prepare. That effort was undermined shortly after the hearing when a lawyer for one of the codefendants was kidnapped and killed by a group of armed men.

There is far more at stake than the fate of eight men. It is no small irony that the trial began during the week marking the 60th anniversary of the Nuremberg indictments; as in those historic trials held in the wake of World War II, the legal proceedings in Baghdad will serve as a mirror of past events, those that occurred during Hussein’s reign, and will underscore the differences between that old regime and the new one. The handling of the trial will affirm or undermine the legitimacy of the new government in Baghdad.

Unlike the war-crimes trials that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Baghdad proceedings are being conducted by Iraqis themselves. The rules for the Iraqi Special Tribunal were created in 2003, when Iraq was still run by U.S. occupiers, and a 1971 law created by Hussein’s own government.

Five judges will hear the case; their identities have been kept secret to protect them from retaliation by the former regime’s supporters. The names of witnesses are also being withheld; it is still unclear how that will affect the defense team’s ability to do its job. The kidnapping and murder of one of the defense attorneys is proof that the threat of violence is real and the precautionary measures are not exaggerated.

For many Iraqis, justice is impossible. Many victims of the former regime seek nothing but revenge for the terror that was a part of daily life and the family members they lost. For supporters of Hussein, the trial is a mockery, a kangaroo court that cannot be legitimate. They agree with the defendant that he is still the rightful ruler of Iraq and the trial is yet another violation of their country’s sovereignty, like the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

The rest of the world is likely to withhold judgment until after the trial, and they are the real audience for this event. They must be convinced that the new government in Baghdad is genuinely different from its predecessor; that while it may have been installed by an invading force, it has seized the opportunity to make a new beginning for the country. The best way to do that is to dispense justice to the former leadership. That means a fair trial, in which the defendants are afforded every opportunity to make their case. It means that the victims must have a chance to be heard and to have the crimes against them acknowledged. It means that the judges must act according to laws, and make decisions based on the merits of the case, rather than ideology or political opportunity. There must be no taint of “victor’s justice.”

If convicted, the defendants could be sentenced to death by hanging. It is unclear if a conviction in this first case would preempt subsequent trials. That would be wrong. There are many atrocities for which some reckoning must be provided. If the new government can do that, then it will have begun to make good on the promise to give the Iraqi people something they did not have before — justice.

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