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Baghdad - Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein will be the first to be tried before a new Iraqi court set up last week to prosecute crimes against humanity, a leading judge said on Sunday.
"If the case against him is completed with all the necessary evidence he will be the first to appear before this court," Dara Nuredin, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council and the chairman of its legal committee that drew up the tribunal's statutes, told AFP.
He denied unconfirmed reports that Saddam had been taken out of Iraq, saying, "He is on Iraqi soil under a tight guard," without specifying where.
However, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the Council must not mount a political show trial.
"Saddam Hussein's capture is a welcome development and it's important that the Iraqi people feel ownership of his trial," Kenneth Roth, the executive director of the rights watchdog, said in a statement.
"But it's equally important that the trial not be perceived as vengeful justice," Roth said. "For that reason, international jurists must be involved in the process."
US President George Bush vowed on Sunday that Saddam will face "justice he denied to millions". White House officials declined to specify what Bush meant by "justice."
Bush spokesperson Scott McClellan told AFP: "Iraqis will be involved in that decision."
Governing Council chairman Abdel Aziz al-Hakim also said that the ex-president would have a date with the new tribunal.
The captive dictator "will be taken before the judges and he will be judged according to the law in force before the tribunal that was set up in Iraq," Hakim said after learning the news while on a trip to Madrid.
Council member Ahmed Chalabi said that the 66-year-old Saddam, discovered Saturday evening in a camouflaged farmyard hole near his hometown of Tikrit in northern Iraq, would be tried in public.
"Saddam is under arrest and he will be tried publicly and punished for his crimes," Chalabi told Iraqi television.
Saddam, whose 24-year reign was ended by US troops in April, stands accused of gassing Iranian forces during the 1980-1988 war and the Kurdish population, including thousands of women and children.
He brutally repressed Shi'a and Kurdish uprisings in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War and tens of thousands of people disappeared during his 24-year rule.
The special tribunal was set up on Wednesday but is unlikely to begin work before a new government takes power in July.
The new court is to follow international law to a background of Iraq's 1969 legislative framework but purged of Saddam's later amendments, notably the death sentence for some 200 crimes.
But HRW has said the law creating the tribunal, which has yet to be published, is "flawed" and lacks "essential elements to ensure legitimate and credible trials for perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity."
Richard Dicker, director of HRW's International Justice Program, warned: "The tribunal might be seen as a court of revenge, not justice."
"It will not be a court of revenge," Dara insisted in an interview with AFP. "The accused will have a fair trial - not a revenge trial."
"If this was a revenge court we would have kept the changes (Saddam made to the penal code) and executed them all," he said.
Dara pointed out that while the Governing Council had suspended the death penalty in Iraq, it would be up to a new government to decide whether to legislate for capital punishment.
He voiced surprise at the criticism of the tribunal law, which he said ensures due process, protects defendants and requires proof of guilt, before it has even been published. He said it would not come into force until January.
Dara also said the new law allows for international lawyers or experts on war crimes to be consulted by the tribunal and that this could be extended to the United Nations.
However the judges, investigators and prosecutors would all be Iraqis.
"As a Governing Council we decided it would be better for all the judges to be Iraqis. These crimes were committed against Iraqis by Iraqis," he said.
In a twist of history, the tribunal will sit in a huge central Baghdad museum dedicated to Saddam memorabilia.