Dutch court says gassing of Iraqi Kurds was 'genocide'

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A Dutch court has ruled that the killing of thousands of Kurds by Saddam Hussein's regime was an act of genocide as the tribunal sentenced a trader to 15 years in jail for selling the chemicals used in the gas attacks. Dozens of Kurds packed the court and danced outside after the verdict.

The trial was the first to deal with war crimes stemming from action against Kurds in Iraq and Iran. But it is unclear whether the landmark ruling could lead to other prosecutions in the West for complicity in genocide in the Halabja killings. Some 5,000 Kurdish villagers died in March 1988 by the gas attack launched at the end of the bitter Iran-Iraq war.

Britain has incorporated the International Criminal Court Act into domestic legislation which is not retrospective, and therefore limited to events after May 2001. But the Dutch legislation has retrospective effect. The United States, which cited Saddam's weapons of mass destruction as a pressing reason for invading Iraq in 2003, turned a blind eye to Saddam's use of poison gas against the Kurds.

In November 1988, the British foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, said there was "compelling but not conclusive" evidence that Iraq had used chemical weapons against the Kurds. At the time, he said it was better to continue relations with Saddam rather than "isolate Iraq and make its unacceptable behaviour more likely".

Peter Carter QC, chairman of the Bar's human rights committee, said Dutch and British jurisdictions were restricted in that they could try only their nationals. "But this means British mercenaries who support regimes that commit war crimes can expect prosecution," he added.

The ruling on genocide said the Dutch court "thinks and considers legally and convincingly proven that the Kurdish population meets requirement under Genocide Conventions as an ethnic group. The court has no other conclusion than that these attacks were committed with the intent to destroy the Kurdish population of Iraq".

The Dutch trader, Frans van Anraat, was found guilty of complicity in war crimes. "All the deliveries took place before 16 March, 1988; therefore, the defendant must be acquitted of complicity in genocide," the court said, referring to the date of the attack. Mr van Anraat, who intends to appeal, had admitted selling the chemicals to Iraq but denied knowing they would become lethal weapons.

The prosecution, which had sought the 15-year jail sentence, accused the 63-year-old trader of having shipped at least 1,100 tons of chemicals to Iraq that were used to manufacture the weapons.

Presiding Judge Roel van Rossum said: "His deliveries facilitated the attacks and constitute a very serious war crime. He cannot counter with the argument that this would have happened even without his contribution. Even the maximum sentence is not enough to cover the seriousness of the acts."

Yesterday's decision will not have any immediate impact on the trial of the ousted Iraqi dictator, because he is being tried for crimes of humanity stemming from the killing of Shia after an attempted assassination in 1982. The charges against Saddam and his seven co-defendants carry the death penalty.

Later, there are plans to try him for the Halabja massacre among other crimes, although specific charges have not yet been filed.