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Can Saddam Hussein get a fair trial?

The first case against the deposed ruler is to begin Wednesday in Baghdad.

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When the curtain goes up on Saddam Hussein's first trial Wednesday, the audience will stretch far beyond the Baghdad courtroom where the former Iraqi president is on trial for his life.

Advocates of international justice, anxious to spread the law's reach to dictators everywhere, will be watching to see how the Iraqi Special Tribunal copes as judges try the gravest crimes in the world's statute books.

"This is one of the most important trials of our lifetimes," says Michael Scharf, a law professor at Case Western University in Cleveland, because of "the number of victims ... the status of the defendant ... and the fact that the whole world went to war against this man in 1991."

The way the trial has been organized, however, has divided international justice experts. Some of them say Mr. Hussein should have been brought before an international tribunal, such as the panels that judged Nazi leaders at Nuremburg, or the Rwandan Hutu officials charged with genocide, rather than a domestic Iraqi court.

"Since some of the crimes he is accused of are crimes under international law," such as crimes against humanity and genocide, says Geoffrey Robertson, a British lawyer, "it would be better for a proper international court to be set up."

Since Nuremburg, several such courts have furthered the idea that crimes against humanity require judgment in courts with broader authority than national tribunals.

Hussein's trial "is a departure from the main current of trials of senior officials in post-conflict situations" such as Rwanda, Sierra Leone, or the former Yugoslavia, adds Richard Dicker, head of the International Justice department of Human Rights Watch in New York. "That's a bad thing," he argues. "These are extremely difficult trials to do in the best of circumstances. They put an enormous strain on just developed or newly restored judicial systems" after wars.

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