Chalabi Nephew under Investigation in Killing
By Edmund Sanders
Los Angeles Times
Tuesday 03 August 2004
The organizer of Iraq's war crimes tribunal allegedly made threats. The case raises conflict-of-interest issues for the country's justice system.
Baghdad - Iraq's top criminal court is investigating allegations that Salem Chalabi, the organizer of the war crimes tribunal against Saddam Hussein, threatened an Iraqi official days before the man was assassinated, sources familiar with the investigation said.
Chalabi, whose uncle is former Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi, has been accused by two individuals of attempting to intimidate Haitham Fadhil, a Finance Ministry official who was investigating the Chalabi family's real estate holdings when he was killed in May.
Salem Chalabi, 41, denied involvement in the slaying and dismissed the allegations as an effort to remove him as executive director of the Iraqi Special Tribunal, which will try top officials of the former regime for alleged crimes against humanity.
"It enrages me that someone makes these allegations," Chalabi said in a telephone interview from Kuwait, where he was traveling with Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. "I've never met the person in question."
Because it involves such a well-connected individual and in effect pits members of one Iraqi court against those of another, the case is testing the independence and commitment of the justice system created by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority before it handed over power in Iraq on June 28.
The investigation began after the May 28 shooting of Fadhil, who was preparing a report on reclaiming government-owned real estate.
Among other things, the document concluded that members of the Chalabi family and their political party, the Iraqi National Congress, had illegally seized hundreds of pieces of property after the U.S.-led invasion last year, a source familiar with the investigation said. The property included mansions, former government offices, ranches and agricultural land.
After the invasion, several political parties in Iraq moved into properties that previously belonged to the government, but the INC was perceived by some to have been the most aggressive.
Fadhil "was trying to get back those properties that belonged to the people," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He told his wife and a friend that he had received a lot of threats from Mr. Salem Chalabi directly, who told him: 'You will not stay for long. We will get rid of you.' "
Witnesses told Iraqi investigators that Fadhil feared for his life and had given a copy of his report to another person for safekeeping. The copy is in the possession of the Central Criminal Court of Iraq, the source said. Court investigators want to question Chalabi.
Chalabi said he learned recently that investigators were looking into the threat allegations and that he planned to voluntarily provide a statement to the court when he returned to Baghdad this week. In the meantime, he said, he has appealed to several government officials, including the prime minister and president, and has been assured that he should not worry.
"I'm not the principal person they are looking at," he said.
The probe is the latest controversy involving the central court, which functions like a federal prosecutor and has tackled several high-profile cases in recent months. The court's judges have issued arrest warrants for radical cleric Muqtada Sadr and for the governor of Maysan province.
In May, the court ordered a raid of the home and offices of Ahmad Chalabi as part of an investigation involving several INC members accused of kidnapping, fraud, torture and theft of government property. Ahmad Chalabi, who was not the target of the raid, criticized the action as part of a U.S. campaign to discredit him.
A longtime opponent of Hussein, Ahmad Chalabi recently had a falling-out with his allies in the Bush administration amid criticism that he had provided misleading information about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction and shared classified U.S. information with Iran. The Pentagon cut off monthly payments of $340,000 to Chalabi's group.
An INC spokesman said the allegations against Salem Chalabi are part of a smear campaign, probably orchestrated by Americans seeking to marginalize Ahmad Chalabi.
"They are trying to damage Salem to get to his uncle," said Zaab Sethna, an INC spokesman in London. He questioned the validity of the court and said the judges "take their order from the Americans."
Zuhair Maliky, the chief investigative judge of the court, declined to comment on the details of the probe into Fadhil's assassination. But he defended his court's impartiality.
"We have no relation with the Americans," Maliky said, adding that the Chalabi family worked closely with the U.S. before the recent split. "We are not the ones who came from abroad. We lived here and suffered under Saddam."
U.S. advisors to the criminal court, the special tribunal and the Finance Ministry declined to be interviewed.
"This is an Iraqi issue," U.S. Embassy spokesman Robert J. Callahan said. "To our knowledge it does not impact any American citizens. We're not going to get involved."
A Finance Ministry official confirmed only that Fadhil was director-general of government-owned real estate before he was killed. His wife and son are believed to be in protective custody.
Another ministry official was arrested last week for allegedly releasing details about Fadhil's report before his killing, a source said.
The investigation raises conflict-of-interest issues for Iraq's legal system. The same criminal court that is investigating the allegations against Salem Chalabi is conducting much of the investigation for the Hussein tribunal, which Chalabi is organizing. The judge who presided over the first tribunal hearing last month is a member of the criminal court.
"It's an awkward situation to be in," said Samir Shakir Mahmoud Sumaidy, former interior minister of Iraq. "It might be better for Salem to step aside until the investigation is complete. He should cooperate. If he's clean, he will emerge as clean."
Sumaidy, who has known Chalabi for years, added that the allegations sounded out of character.
"He's not the kind of guy who goes around threatening people," he said.
Legal experts said the case could undermine the credibility of the tribunal.
"This is one more difficulty the court is going to have," said attorney Richard Goldstone, former prosecutor for the United Nations tribunal in Yugoslavia. "If I were a defense attorney for Saddam, I would use any allegation against Chalabi to attack the credibility and impartiality of the court."
Some critics had already questioned whether Chalabi had the experience and independence to lead the process, given his uncle's role in battling Hussein.
Salem Chalabi also raised eyebrows last year by pursuing a marketing partnership with L. Marc Zell, a Jerusalem attorney and former law partner of Pentagon official Douglas J. Feith, to help private companies win contracts in Iraq.
Chalabi said he had no intention of stepping down. "It makes me more determined than ever to stay on the tribunal," he said.