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Prosecutors Seek Genocide Verdict for Chemical Ali

Lawyers, victims applaud death sentence but not satisfied with crimes against humanity conviction.
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Prosecutors are to seek a genocide verdict against Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as Chemical Ali, claiming his crimes against humanity conviction for the 1988 Halabja gas attack will not bring justice for its victims.


Iraq's High Criminal Court on January 17 sentenced Majid to death by hanging for ordering the bombing of Halabja with mustard gas and various nerve agents.


More than 5,000 residents, mostly women and children, were killed in the atrocity on March 16, 1988.


Kurdish prosecutors, Halabja residents and community leaders told IWPR that although they were satisfied with Majid’s death sentence, they want the notorious former defence minister convicted of genocide for the Halabja attacks.


Prosecutors said they plan to appeal the verdict at the supreme court next week, arguing that a genocide conviction may bring more international recognition to the attacks on Halabja and increase the prospect of victims receiving compensation.


Doctors say thousands of survivors continue to suffer from the lingering effects of the chemical weapons but have limited access to medical care. [See: Trial Highlight's Halabja's Agony]


"It’s important to get the genocide charge so there can be no doubt about what happened to the people of Halabja on March 16, 1988. It will help victims seek compensation," said deputy prosecutor Bakir Hama Sidiq, who lost 23 of his relatives in the Halabja attack and was in the town at the time.


"The government claimed [then] that Halabja was a military base, but it was really a message to Iran [which Iraq was at war with at the time] that they didn't have pity even on their own people. It was genocide."


Chief prosecutor Goran Adham said his team supported the sentencing, but would file an appeal for a genocide verdict. Majid “got what he deserved,” he said. “Not only did he admit to the crime, but we had plenty of evidence to prove it.”


The verdict brings an abrupt end to a slow-moving, two-year trial and sets the stage for Iraq's most high-profile execution since the 2006 hanging of former dictator Saddam Hussien, Majid's first cousin and long-time patron.


“We see justice in the verdict but not recognising the case officially as genocide [raises] our concerns,” Kurdistan Regional Government spokesman Kawa Mahmud told local media earlier this week. “We are happy that the prosecutors asked for an appeal."


It is unclear whether an appeal to change the conviction to genocide would delay Majid’s execution. Adham said the courts can carry out the death sentence without hearing the appeal.


The judge did not explain why Majid had been convicted of crimes against humanity rather than genocide - and, despite approaching a number of legal authorities, IWPR was unable to clarify the decision.


Tariq Harb, head of the Iraqi Legal Culture Society and one of Iraq’s top legal experts, said that the appellate process usually takes months. Such an appeal, however, was unprecedented in Iraqi legal history, he noted.


Adham added that he believed that the five-member supreme court will still be able to consider the appeal for the genocide verdict even after Majid is executed.


"I believe that he will be executed before the supreme court decides", he said.


Also convicted for crimes against humanity for the gassing of Halabja were former Baathist defence minister Sultan Hashim al-Taie and ex-military intelligence chief Sabir Azizi al-Douri. Both defendants were given 15 years in jail, sentences Adham and his legal team consider too lenient for the atrocity committed.


"We feel that the sentences for the other defendants are not fair. They must be given tougher punishment," said Adham, who is a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan candidate for the vacant position of Halabja district chief. "We respect the court's verdict, but we will ask for a new judgement from the supreme court."


Political wrangling over the fate of Taie, once a popular Sunni politician and military chief, has stalled previous execution orders for Majid. Taie was sentenced to death along with Majid in 2007 for atrocities committed during the Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the 1980s, but Iraqi vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi and president Jalal Talabani, an opponent of the death penalty, have declined to sign the execution order.


The Halabja verdict was Majid's fourth death sentence for crimes committed against Kurds and Shia Iraqis while acting as Saddam Hussein's military strongman during three decades of Baathist rule. Majid has been in American custody since his capture shortly after the US invasion in 2003. Iraq's deputy justice minister, Busho Ibrahim, told reporters on January 17 that Majid's execution would now come "very soon".


The court decision comes amid a wave of anti-Baathist sentiment, raising speculation that the verdict may be exploited for political gain ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for March 7.


"The verdict of a death sentence on Ali Hassan al-Majid in the Halabja case will be used by Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki in his election campaign" said analyst Hadi Jelow Mari, who writes on Iraqi politics for Baghdad-based Al-Mada newspaper. "Maliki will say to the Iraqi street that it was he who carried out the execution of Saddam Hussein and that he continues to enforce strict measures against Saddam's former deputies."


Despite the lack of a genocide verdict, Adham said that the crimes against humanity conviction still left the possibility of a civil lawsuit to seek compensation for victims and victims' families.


“We are going to prosecute the foreign companies [which sold chemicals used in the weapons] and the central government and the Kurdistan government can sue them in the international courts as well," Adham told IWPR.


In Halabja, hundreds of residents gathered at a memorial cemetery on January 17 to place flowers on the graves of friends and relatives who were killed in the attack. In a ceremony the following day, the pen used to sign Majid's guilty verdict was added to the display at a Halabja memorial alongside a camera used to take photographs of children and families who died in the gas attack.


Many Halabja residents, most of whom lost loved ones in the attack, had hoped the two-year trial would bring an official recognition of genocide and open the door to financial redress.


“I am not happy about his execution because it doesn’t change anything for us. He would have been executed even without the Halabja verdict. What is important for us is the recognition of the case as genocide," said Yahya Nawzar, a Halabja school teacher.


During the event, protesters held a banner which read, "We want him charged with genocide."


Halabja mayor Khidir Karim Muhammad said some residents were initially disappointed by the crimes against humanity verdict but later held a party to celebrate Majid’s conviction.


"I went Baghdad to hear the verdict and I called the people and told them not to worry because we got [most] of our demands,” he said. “We will wait for the decision by the supreme court, and then we will have a huge celebration."


Hemin H Lihony is an IWPR Iraq local editor in Sulaimaniyah. Khabat Nawzad is an IWPR-trained journalist in Halabja. IWPR local editor Mohammad Furat and IWPR Iraq senior local editor Abeer Mohammed contributed to this report from Erbil and Baghdad.

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