Britain will not oppose execution of tyrant

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Stripped of prisoner-of-war status and the protections he was accorded under the Geneva Conventions, Saddam Hussein appeared before an Iraqi judge yesterday as Iraq's new government took the first step towards bringing him to justice and a possible death penalty.

Stripped of prisoner-of-war status and the protections he was accorded under the Geneva Conventions, Saddam Hussein appeared before an Iraqi judge yesterday as Iraq's new government took the first step towards bringing him to justice and a possible death penalty.

"Today at 10:15am (0615 GMT) the Republic of Iraq assumed legal custody of Saddam Hussein," said a terse statement from interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's office. Saddam is now a common criminal held under Iraq's judicial code.

The prospect of Saddam's execution has raised the spectre of another international row between Europe and the US over Iraq and it raises difficult questions for Tony Blair.

The European Court of Human Rights obliges Britain and other signatories to its conventions to get assurances that people in its custody are not at risk of being tried in proceedings that could lead to the death penalty. Ali Hassan al-Majid, the man known as "Chemical Ali'' for his role in using chemical weapons against the Kurds was in British custody but it could not be ascertained if such assurances had been obtained.

The British government will not oppose Saddam Hussein being executed if the Iraqis decide that is his fate, Downing Street said yesterday.

Privately, British ministers hope the former Iraqi dictator will not be sentenced to death because they are worried that this could turn him into a "martyr". But one senior government source recalled that the murder of the Romanian dictator Nikolai Ceaucescu did not have that effect. "Sometimes, people want closure, just like they did in Romania," he said. He added that both the United States and China had the death penalty.

The issue is highly sensitive for the British government because of its opposition to the death penalty. The interim Iraqi administration is bringing back capital punishment and Britain will not intervene to halt an execution decided by the Iraqi judicial system.

Mr Blair's official spokesman said: "We have made clear to the Iraqi Government our opposition to the death penalty and we will continue to do so. But Iraq now has a sovereign government again and we have to respect that sovereignty." He added: "This is a matter for the Iraqi Government and the outcome of a transparent judicial process."

Handed over to Iraqi justice some 15 months after US-led forces overthrew him, Saddam and 11 of his closest former aides will remain under US military guard, despite Monday's ceremony returning sovereignty to Iraq.

"Saddam said, 'Good morning' and asked if he could ask some questions," said Salem Chalabi, the Iraqi lawyer heading the tribunal set up to try the former president. Mr Chalabi attended the formalities in which Saddam and 11 of his former lieutenants were turned over.

Mr Chalabi, who has received repeated death threats since he started work on the tribunal, described the 67-year-old Saddam as being in good health. He said that Saddam had remained seated during the closed proceedings. The Iraqi dictator's aides were reportedly nervous or hostile. "Chemical Ali'' was report edly shaking.

Saddam's trial is likely to be several months away and to be broadcast live on television.

The the death penalty, which has been suspended during the US occupation, is being reinstated specifically to deal with Saddam and his former aides according to the country's President.

Saddam will now be charged with crimes against humanity for the infamous 1988 gas massacre of Kurds in the town of Halabja, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the extensive use of chemical weapons in the 1980-88 war he launched on Iran, according to Mr Chalabi.

"Tomorrow's proceedings will mark the start of his trial," an official in Mr Allawi's office said. According to the French lawyer Emmanuel Ludot, one of a 20-strong team appointed by Saddam's wife, the former dictator will refuse to recognise the court.

"It will be a court of vengeance, a settling of scores," Mr Ludot said, claiming that any judge sitting in the court would be under pressure to find Saddam guilty.

Among the others being handed over were former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz and three of Saddam's half-brothers.

Those former officials and others among the 55 most wanted Iraqis on a US list are seen as witnesses who could help prove a chain of command linking Saddam to crimes against humanity. Mr Allawi's government wants to show Iraqis that the occupation is really over, despite the continued presence of 160,000 US-led foreign troops, and to prove it can curb violence. Yesterday, insurgents fired six to 10 mortar rounds that landed north of Baghdad international airport, wounding six US soldiers .

In Najaf, Iraqi police announced an overnight curfew after fighters loyal to the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr clashed with a police patrol.

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