‘Saddam should be tried for genocide,’ says Kurdish activist

Or nearly 25 years, Bakhtiar Amin has been on the trail of Saddam Hussein, trying to bring the Iraqi president and senior members of his regime before an international court. First as a human rights activist and now executive director of the Paris-based International Alliance for Justice, a network of 275 non-governmental organizations from over 120 countries, he has been pressuring the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Arab governments for the establishment of an ad hoc tribunal for what he calls «the Iraqi leadership’s crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and crimes of war.» Amin, a tall, well-built Kurd from northern Iraq with Swedish citizenship and homes in Paris and Washington, has been after Saddam Hussein since 1988, when the Iraqi president ordered a chemical attack on Kurdish villages. At that time, Saddam was the darling of the international community because of his war with Iran, when he was seen as a bulwark against the exportation of Islamic revolution. Then came Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the Gulf War, and now the United States’ pressure on Iraq to hand over its weapons of mass destruction and for Saddam Hussein to be removed from power. Amin, who was in Athens earlier this month, shrugs off the possibility that today his campaign might appear to be part of President George Bush’s crusade against Saddam Hussein. «It is not linked to this,» he said. «When we started our campaign, the international community was actually with Saddam Hussein,» he said. «We are being consistent, and we are continuing our campaign for justice for the Iraqi people and combating the impunity and the ongoing cycle of violence that have had disastrous consequences for the millions of victims in Iraq, as well as in neighboring countries – in Iran and Kuwait.» But does the current debate on Iraq help or detract from his cause? «I have been in exile for 26 years and denouncing the Iraqi regime’s crimes constantly. There was a wall of silence and no one was listening to us. There are times when things heat up and certain people pay attention to what we have to say. When it calms down, there is no room for us again. We have been through this for decades. The international community has changed its position on many occasions. It’s like mercury in a thermometer. It goes up, it goes down. We have been an orphan nation as a nation for decades,» Amin said. Amin has been documenting human rights violations in Iraq for decades, first appearing before the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva and calling for a criminal tribunal for Saddam shortly after the Iraqi regime killed thousands of people in a gas attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja in northeastern Iraq. He notes that the Iraqi regime’s crimes are well-documented – from the tons of security force documents seized in the uprisings in north and south after the Gulf War in 1991 to the findings of the special UN rapporteur on human rights in Iraq, first Hans van der Stoel and, since 2000, Andreas Mavromatis of Cyprus. «They detail the genocide committed by Saddam’s regime, in particular the Anfal campaign against the Kurds in 1988 in which the Iraqi government killed 182,000 people, destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages and gassed, all in all, about 250 Kurdish villages, and mountain tops and valleys and the city of Halabja. About 25,000 people were killed by the gas. In Halabja alone there were 5,000 dead within minutes. And the world did not stop. There was a wall of silence. No condemnation by the international community or even the Security Council,» Amin said. «The international community has still not helped the Kurdish population with these problems. Fourteen years after the gassing, these people are still suffering from these problems. There is not a single possibility for chemotherapy or radiotherapy, or healing centers for the psychological problems that exist.» In the 1980s, as Iraq fought a major war with Iran in which there were a million casualties on both sides, the government decided to set-up a 30,000-square-kilometer security zone along the Iranian, Turkish and Syrian borders. Several huge palaces for Saddam were then built in this depopulated area. Tens of thousands of Kurds were removed and 4,400 of the region’s 5,000 villages and 26 large towns were destroyed. The people were moved to 110 fenced camps, far from their native land. This, and the «Arabization» campaign of Kurdish areas such as Kirkuk have resulted in about a million displaced Kurds living in or around Baghdad. This provides exiled opposition groups with a rich source of information from within Iraq, in addition to NGOs and the UN rapporteur’s reports. After Iraqi troops suppressed uprisings by the Kurds in the north and the Shia majority in the south after the Gulf War, the south, too, was devastated. Amin says that since Saddam came to power, some 500,000 Kurds have been killed. «The second largest victims are the Shia. During the uprising of 1991 alone, there are figures of 200,000 to 250,000 killed within six weeks. Five of their spiritual leaders (as the Catholics have the pope they have one for all Shia) have been killed by the Iraqi government during Saddam’s period.» The evidence, Amin says, is that no one is immune. «Seventeen of Saddam’s own ministers have been killed up to now. Twenty thousand members of his own party, up to now,» he says. But will not the call for Saddam to stand trial force him to fight rather than allow UN weapons inspections? This is a question that Amin has obviously spent a long time thinking about and come to a clear conclusion. «It’s difficult for a human rights person to say I want to have a war, and to be seen as someone drumming for war. But realistically speaking, when I look at the menace, I don’t see other ways,» he says. «The only way to end the suffering of the population from the disastrous human rights and humanitarian situation in Iraq is to get rid of Saddam Hussein and his regime. I have come to a conclusion that the word reform does not exist in the dictionary of Saddam Hussein. And as long as this brutal man remains in power, the Iraqi people will continue to suffer and he will find ways to make them suffer.»