Human rights advocates and lawyers say Iraq's hush-hush legal proceedings against former president Saddam Hussein's ousted regime and the secrecy leading up to the investigative hearings that began late last week threaten to undermine the legitimacy of the trial process.
First, they complain, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi surprised many by announcing the trials of several of Saddam's former regime members would begin sooner than had been expected, although no date was ever set.
Then, a judge made similarly unexpected news -- announcing without notice Saturday that two high-profile defendants had already been interrogated. Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as Chemical Ali for his role in poison gas attacks against the Kurdish minority, and former Defense Minister General Sultan Hashim Ahmad appeared on that day at a preliminary hearing by investigative Judge Raad al-Juhyi.
Under Iraqi law the investigative hearings are the first step toward a trial. But the timing of the court appearances -- just ahead of Jan. 30 general elections -- has prompted accusations the legal proceedings were being expedited to boost Allawi's political standing.
"There is no transparency and everything is mysterious," complained Badee Izzat Aref, lawyer of former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam's top lieutenants who has been jailed for over a year.
"[The judges] are under pressure from the executive authority because of the elections."
Al-Juhyi provided few details about the investigative hearings, but said defense lawyers were present with their two clients. The exact date of the hearings wasn't previously announced and no press was invited. Footage of the proceedings was later released.
Judges and officials have not given a date for the start of the criminal trials or released any information on whether Saddam's aides will be tried individually or jointly.
The process has been criticized by foreign trial monitors.
"If the whole judicial process is going to have credibility and legitimacy, the government needs to be much more forthcoming with information about the rights that the accused are being given," Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said before Saturday's hearings.
It wasn't even clear what kind of access defense lawyers had been given to their clients, he noted.
Allawi's brief announcement Tuesday that the judicial proceedings would start in a matter of days left many questions unanswered, including whether Saddam himself was going to be among those to appear in court.
"So far, we know nothing about the trials. No one knows how they took the decision or who took the decision," to start the process now, said Mahmoud Othman, a prominent Kurdish politician. "Suddenly they break the news and provide no explanation. People won't take it seriously."
Bahar Ahmed, a Kurd who lost her father and about 50 relatives in 1988 chemical attacks in the Kurdish town of Halabja, said the victims deserved more information.
"I'd like to know what happens in these closed hearings so that I could satisfy my need for revenge," she said.