Iraq's hush-hush legal proceedings against Saddam Hussein's ousted regime and the secrecy leading up to the first of the investigative hearings last week threaten to undermine...

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraq’s hush-hush legal proceedings against Saddam Hussein’s ousted regime and the secrecy leading up to the first of the investigative hearings last week threaten to undermine the legitimacy of the trial process, critics say.

In an unanticipated development, investigative judge Raad al-Juhyi announced Saturday that two high-profile defendants — Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as Chemical Ali for his role in poison-gas attacks against the Kurdish minority, and former Defense Minister Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmad — had been interrogated earlier in the day at secret preliminary hearings.

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A date for the hearings had not been announced, although interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi had said Tuesday that proceedings would begin in a matter of days.

Under Iraqi law the investigative hearings are the first step to a trial. But the timing of the court appearances, just ahead of general elections set for Jan. 30, has prompted accusations the prosecutions were being expedited to aid Allawi politically.

“There is no transparency, and everything is mysterious,” complained Badee Izzat Aref, lawyer for former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam’s top lieutenants who has been jailed for more than a year. “They [the judges] are under pressure from the executive authority because of the elections.”

Al-Juhyi provided few details about the hearings but said defense lawyers were present with their two clients. Footage of the proceedings was later released.

Foreign trial monitors have criticized the process.

“If the whole judicial process is going to have credibility and legitimacy, the government needs to be much more forthcoming with information about the rights that the accused are being given,” Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said before Saturday’s hearings.

“So far, we know nothing about the trials. No one knows how they took the decision or who took the decision” to start the process now, said Mahmoud Othman, a prominent Kurdish politician. “Suddenly they break the news and provide no explanation. People won’t take it seriously.”

Bahar Ahmed, a Kurd who lost her father and about 50 relatives in 1988 chemical attacks in the Kurdish town of Halabja, said the victims deserved more information. “I’d like to know what happens in these closed hearings so that I could satisfy my need for revenge,” she said.

The government may have been under pressure to demonstrate progress in the cases of the high-profile detainees, some of whom were detained 20 months ago.

Allawi’s spokesman, Thair al-Naqeeb, denied the government had anything to do with setting the trial dates, saying a judicial committee had established them.

“This is a judicial process, not a political one,” deputy prime minister Barham Saleh told Al-Arabiya television. He said the trials themselves were expected to be held in public.