The Halabja trial, stemming from the case of the 1988 chemical attacks of the Kurdish citizens of Halabja, began on December 21. There are 483 plaintiffs representing relatives who died in the attacks.
For two days during the Iraq-Iran war, Iraqi military planes dropped toxic gas on the town of Halabja, leaving nearly 5,000 dead and thousands wounded. Thousands more were displaced to refugee camps in Iran and inside Iraq.
The incident, which Human Rights Watch (HRW) defined as an act of genocide, was as of 2008 the largest-scale chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history.
The United States, fully aware that it was Iraq that carried out the genocidal attack against the Kurds, accused Iran, Iraq’s enemy in a fierce war, of being partly responsible for the attack. The State Department instructed its diplomats to say that Iran was partly to blame. Iraq at that time was a US ally against Iran.
The trial, headed by Mohammed Khalifa al-Uraibi, charges four former top Ba’ath officials with the crimes of war and genocide, as well as crimes against humanity. Defendants include Ali Hassan Al-Majeed, also known as “Chemical Ali”; Sultan Hashem, a former defense minister; and Sabir Aziz Al-Douri and Farhan Mutlak Al-Juburi, two former intelligence officers.
Al-Majeed, a Sunni Arab who was Saddam’s cousin and a member of his inner circle, has already been sentenced to death twice, once in 2007 for his role in killing tens of thousands of Kurds in Saddam’s military ‘Anfal’ campaign. Majeed’s second death sentence came this month for his part in crushing a Shi’ite revolt after the 1991 Gulf War. He is being held in a US detention centre but is due like thousands of other detainees to be handed over to the Iraqi government under a security pact taking effect on January 1.
On the day the trial started, hundreds of Halabja citizens and a number of local and governmental officials demonstrated in support of the trial, waving banners and shouting for the execution of the Halabja case defendants.
“We ask the court to execute Chemical Ali and to heal the wounds he caused by gassing our beloved,” said Shereen Hassan, a Halabja housewife who took part in the protest.
“I will never rest until I see him hanged,” said Peshtwan Qader.
In session one of the trial, Fatima Hama Salih, a survivor of the Halabja chemical bombings, gave the first testimony.
On March 13, 1988, a battle began between Iraqi and Iranian forces outside the town. Exploding artillery was heard. Salih’s family, along with four other families, fled to an underground shelter in fear. They stayed underground until March 15, the day Iraqi forces withdrew from the town. Others who had already left Halabja also came home that day as calmness retuned. On the 16th, at 11am, fighter jets were heard raiding the town. Fatima’s family returned to the shelter until the afternoon. “We were afraid of the shelter falling down on us,” she told the court via an interpreter.
Everything then grew quiet, and the sounds of bombs disappeared. Meanwhile, Ahmed Muhammad Qadir, a neighbor, informed the people inside the shelter that the town had been bombarded with chemical weapons. The news brought the people out of the shelter. Fatima and her family decided to run. Not 70 meters from home they saw unconscious and wounded people. The scene forced Fatima and her family to go back home. Her husband told her to go up to the top floor. “Better to go to a higher place,” he said. Fatima rushed water on her daughter’s face. A white liquid was leaking from the mouth of her son. He cried: “Mother! I am burning!” At that moment, her husband asked Fatima to forgive him because he could not do more to rescue their family. She fainted.
When she opened her eyes she found herself in an Iranian hospital in Kimanshah with no children and no husband. In the coming days she was moved to Tehran where she remained for 25 days, along with many others. Fatima lost her husband their five children.
On this Christmas Day please take a moment of your time to remember the victims of this horrendous attack.
–New “Chemical Ali” trial begins, Reuters UK, 21 December 2008
–Halabja trial begins, Kurdish Globe, 25 December 2008
-Hiltermann, J. Halabja: America didn’t seem to mind poison gas, International Herald Tribune, 17 January 2003