Saddam Hussein, once the most powerful leader in the Arab world, will today stand trial in a Baghdad courtroom over a 1982 massacre that could see him sentenced to death.
While Saddam has been accused of a litany of crimes during his 24-year rule, this trial is limited to the killing of 143 Shi'ites that took place in the village of Dujail as an alleged reprisal after an attack on his convoy.
He will stand before five judges at the Iraqi special tribunal along with three former top lieutenants and four local Baath Party officials. All could face the death penalty if found guilty.
It marks the latest stage in the fall of Saddam from all-powerful leader to convict after US forces found his bedraggled and exhausted figure in the north of the country on December 13, 2003.
The trial will take place amid the tightest security measures "with the defendants likely to be encased behind bullet-proof glass, and the tribunal has only allowed the minimum of information to filter out.
For security reasons the names of the judges have not been disclosed and neither has the location of the courtroom, although in all probability it will be in the heavily fortified Green Zone in the centre of Baghdad.
According to US officials, the Iraqi judges have received extensive training in the conduct of war crimes and crimes against humanity trials from international experts.
It still remains unclear whether the proceedings will be shown on television, with the authorities worried Saddam should not be allowed to turn the trial into a personal platform.
However the chief spokesman of the court, Raed al-Juhi, has said he "hopes" the trial will be televised and stated that the process will be public unless the court decides to hold the hearings behind closed doors.
Amid the anticipation of Saddam's first appearance before the court, the initial stages could prove to be something of an anti-climax with procedural matters to be dealt with and Saddam's defence calling for a delay.
"Things that could take place on the first day are the court informing the defence council what is expected of them, hearing from the defendants that they are present, that they are represented by counsel and the reading of the criminal violations that the defendants are accused of," a source close to the court said.
Saddam and the seven others who are to be tried "might just give their names" without facing further questions, the source added, without ruling out the trial could be adjourned for several weeks at the request of the defence.
Lawyer claims insufficient access
The former president's Iraqi lawyer Khalil Dulaimi has already said he will ask for a delay on the opening day, claiming the defence has not been given full access to Saddam himself or full details of the charges against him.
It will be impossible to avoid comparisons with the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who faces more than 60 charges in connection with the 1990s Balkan wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo and separate charges of genocide for the war in Bosnia.
While some of Saddam victims hope the limiting of the charges to the Dujail case will allow for a straightforward guilty verdict, others have expressed disappointment that the full spectrum of his alleged crimes is not yet under the microscope.
However Saddam might still be formally charged at a later date over crimes including the gassing of 5,000 people in the Kurdish village of Halabja, the violent suppression of a 1991 Shi'ite uprising and launching the Iran-Iraq War.
While the four local Baath officials standing trial with Saddam are unknown outside Iraq, the public reappearance of his half-brother Barzan Ibrahim al-Hassan and ex-vice-president Taha Yassin Ramadan will attract much interest.
Questions & answers
Who is trying Saddam?
Saddam and his co-defendants are being tried before the Iraqi Special Tribunal, a body established in December 2003 by US-led authorities during the US occupation.
Who brought the charges?
The tribunal has 20 investigative judges who are responsible for gathering evidence against suspects.
Who is defending Saddam?
The former president is being defended by a small team of lawyers led by Khalil Dulaimi, an Iraqi with little experience of defending clients in major criminal cases.
Can Saddam appeal if he is found guilty?
Yes. The tribunal has a nine-member appeals chamber. The president of the appeals court is also the tribunal president. According to the tribunal statutes that are yet to be officially brought into law, any sentence handed down by the trial judges will have to be carried out within 30 days of all appeals being exhausted. The specific charges in the Dujail case carry a maximum sentence of death, which according to Iraq's criminal code would be performed by hanging.
Will Saddam take the witness stand?
Saddam can be called to give evidence in his own defence, but under Iraqi judicial procedure it is the tribunal judges who conduct the examination. Lawyers for the prosecution and the defence can address questions to witnesses only via the judges.
Source: China Daily