London (CNSNews.com) - A London-based campaign, funded by the U.S. Congress and headed by a British Labor lawmaker, moved a step closer Wednesday to seeing its goal of a war crimes trial for Saddam Hussein realized.
Called "the running dogs of the Americans" by Baghdad, the organization called Indict has been gathering evidence against Saddam and other leading Iraqi officials, taking sworn statements and video testimony from victims of the regime.
Its eventual aim is to have the Iraqi leaders brought before an international tribunal to face charges including torture, summary executions, ethnic cleansing and the use of chemical weapons against the Kurd and Shi'ite Marsh Arab minorities.
But as an important first step, its researchers have compiled evidence to help British prosecutors bring a case against Saddam and Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz for their alleged role in the taking of British nationals hostage at the beginning of the 1991 Gulf War.
Ann Clwyd, the Labor parliamentarian who chairs Indict, on Wednesday welcomed the news that Britain's chief lawyer, the Attorney General, Lord Williams, has now asked the police to investigate the matter.
More than 4,500 Britons, along with thousands of citizens from other countries, were taken hostage in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait and Iraq itself at the start of the Gulf War. Indict says some were used as human shields to deter attacks by the U.S.-led allied coalition.
"Many of the hostages were subjected to appalling suffering, physical abuse and mental torture," it said in a statement.
"We are aware that these crimes, though awful, pale in comparison to the crimes the regime is still perpetrating against the Iraqi people."
In an interview Wednesday, Clwyd said the development was significant.
"It has been hailed universally as a very important step. We started with this particular case in this country because it involves British citizens. Under the Taking of Hostages Act, the country is obliged to take action if the evidence is presented."
Indict is unable to pass on names of witnesses for their own safety. But one witness statement describes the conditions faced by a hostage who was held for more than 130 days.
"It ...was filthy with excrement on the walls...we were reduced to a small cup of rice and watery soup between the remaining six of us ... At one point they dug a hole in the garden. I asked what it was for ... one of the guards told me ... it was a grave for us ... if the Coalition forces invaded we would be executed."
Ten years after the war, Clwyd said, some of the British victims remain traumatized. "So you can imagine what it's like for the victims [of ongoing abuses in Iraq] who we've managed to talk to in Kuwait and Iraq and elsewhere."
Officials at Lord William's office have been quoted as expressing doubts about prospects for a conviction, but Clwyd said Indict's lawyers were confident there was a solid case.
She said the decision by Britain's highest court, the House of Lords, to strip former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet of immunity to he could stand trial for human rights abuses could set a precedent for Saddam.
Sixteen months after he was detained in Britain, Pinochet was eventually allowed to fly home in March 2000 on humanitarian grounds, escaping attempts to extradite him to Spain to stand trial.
"We're very confident," Clwyd said. "Working for us as the chief lawyer in these cases is the woman who defended Pinochet. She's an expert in international law and she says our evidence is copper-bottomed, and cannot be faulted on legal grounds."
The lawmaker said it was noteworthy that the Iraqi regime appeared to be anxious about Indict's work.
The organization's London offices had received a number of bomb threats, and a researcher recently had his nose broken during a suspicious assault on the streets of London.
And Tariq Aziz had during a recent visit to Moscow - one of the few capitals where he is still welcome - described Indict as "the running dogs of the Americans."
Indict's main funding comes from the U.S. Congress, something for which Clwyd said it was "extremely grateful." The funds come from a U.S. aid package for opponents of the Iraqi regime.
"We know that the United States has very strong feelings about Saddam Hussein, and I think we'd be supported very widely by the American public if they knew exactly what we were doing.
"We're doing what they funded us to do, which is something no-one else has done in this matter."
Clwyd said her own involvement in Indict was the result of her strong views on human rights. As a journalist in Wales 20 years ago she had heard stories from Kurdish and Iraqi university students there about atrocities in Iraq.
"I hardly believed it because very little information was coming out. I subsequently found it was true and even worse than they described.
"It's been a long ambition of mine to see some of these people responsible for some of the worst crimes since the end of the Second World War brought to book."
Indict's eventual aim is to have leading Iraqi officials brought before an international criminal tribunal, similar to those established by the U.N. Security Council for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
A resolution establishing a tribunal for Iraq would require the support of nine of the 15 members of the Security Council. A veto by any of the five permanent members could scuttle it.
Of the five, only the U.S. and Britain have publicly expressed support for an Iraq tribunal. The remaining three are France, China and Russia.
Among the abuses Saddam and his regime have been accused of over the past two decades are:
- Using chemical weapons against Iranian troops and ballistic missiles against Iranian cities during an eight-year war against its neighbor in the 1980s;
- Killing between 50,000 and 180,000 Iraqi Kurdish civilians during a drive in February 1988 to forcibly relocate them from their home villages;
- Using chemical weapons against Kurdish civilian opponents in March 1988, killing some 5,000 and precipitating birth defects still affecting the community;
- Invading and occupying Kuwait for a seven-month period, during which some Kuwaiti civilians were killed and abused;
- Firing Scud missiles at U.S. troops in the Gulf and at Israeli population centers;
- Torching Kuwaiti oil wells as troops retreated in the face of Operation Desert Storm;
- Repeatedly flouting the ceasefire conditions it accepted in 1991 by refusing to cooperate with U.N. teams tasked to find and destroy its weapons of mass destruction programs;
- Executing hundreds of Iraqi Shi'ites and jailing thousands more during a six-week campaign by forces led by Saddam's son, Qusai, in late 1998.