The charges brought by Danish police against a former Iraqi general underscores the need for the United States to screen its would-be allies in the Iraqi opposition, Human Rights Watch said today.

Danish police have charged Nizar al-Khazraji, former chief of staff of Iraq's armed forces, for his suspected involvement in war crimes perpetrated in Iraq against Kurdish civilians during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Al-Khazraji appeared in court in the town of Soroe on November 19, and was charged with violating articles 146 and 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilians in Time of War.
"Joining the Iraqi opposition cannot be a 'get out of jail free card' for mass murder," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. "These charges send the signal that there is no impunity for former Iraqi officials who may be responsible for horrific crimes. To its credit, Denmark has used its criminal law to prosecute al-Khazraji in a way that furthers justice internationally."

Megally said he expected the al-Khazraji case would be the first of many such cases.

The charges relate to crimes perpetrated in 1984-1988, when, for a time, al-Khazraji held the post of head of the Iraqi army's First Corps. During the court hearing Tuesday, he was accused of responsibility for crimes perpetrated against the Kurdish population through measures not justifiable by military necessity in the context of the Iran-Iraq war. These crimes included the execution of wounded civilians, summary execution of civilians found in areas declared as "prohibited for reasons of security" by the Iraqi authorities, the mass forcible relocation of civilians from their homes, and pillage. Al-Khazraji denied the charges and lodged an immediate appeal against the court's decision.

His appeal is due to be heard before a superior court within the next few days. He was not taken into custody, but, for the present, is unable to leave the country.

Denmark is applying universal jurisdiction, which allows national courts to investigate and prosecute the most egregious crimes under international law, regardless of where the crimes occurred.

In addition to documenting other crimes committed by the Iraqi authorities, Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the attempted genocide of Iraqi Kurds. In its publication Iraq's Crime of Genocide: The Anfal Campaign against the Kurds, Human Rights Watch detailed how, from February to September 1988, Iraqi troops swept through the highlands of Iraqi Kurdistan rounding up everyone who remained in government-declared "prohibited zones." More than 100,000 Kurds, mostly men and boys, were trucked to remote sites and executed.

The assault on the Kurds was also marked by the use of chemical weapons, which reached its peak in March 1988, where in the town of Halabja alone, some 5,000 persons died from chemical gas attacks.

At the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Nizar al-Khazraji was appointed chief of staff of Iraq's armed forces, a post he held until shortly after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. He fled Iraq in 1996 and, following periods of residence in Jordan and Spain, sought political asylum in Denmark in 1998, which was denied.