Iraqis take page out of German book

An East German secret police archive is seen as a model for chronicling Saddam Hussein's crimes.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

An ugly complex of buildings here that once housed the East German secret police is the stuff of dreams for two Iraqi exiles.

The climate-controlled rooms, storing millions of pages of material gathered by Stasi spies - neatly categorized and ready for examination - are the kind of place Hassan Mneimneh and his colleague Kanan Makiya would like to see in Baghdad one day.

"What you have here, we can only dream about," says Mr. Mneimneh, who with Mr. Makiya is trying to set up an archive documenting the Baathist regime that could be used to help bring Saddam Hussein and his henchmen to justice.

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"Now is the time we should be working to provide evidentiary support to try these people," says Makiya, founder of the Iraq Memory Foundation. "We need a paper trail for the regime itself."

Since his capture Dec. 13, Mr. Hussein has been in US custody under CIA interrogation. Washington, which plans to hand over power to Iraqis on June 30, has stated it wants an Iraqi court to try him. Some observers have said it could take up to two years to bring him to justice. Meanwhile, the International Red Cross said Wednesday that it is waiting to set a date with US authorities to visit the former dictator, now classified as a POW.

The East German archive has also become a model for six former Soviet bloc countries trying to come to terms with their totalitarian pasts. Of particular interest are the categorization methods and the legal framework allowing access to the files. More than 5 million files have been reviewed, either by the victims of the state security system or as part of background investigations into former high-ranking East German officials and spies.

In the 14 years since the collapse of the Iron Curtain, no place has moved more quickly to confront its big brother spy network than the former East Germany. In the 1990s, a special section of Berlin's chief prosecutor's office launched more than 20,000 investigations into Stasi, border guards, and members of the Politburo - although critics have charged that the resulting 200 convictions were a paltry yield.

In recent months Makiya and Mneimneh have met twice with the head of the East German Stasi Archive, Marianne Birthler. The archive is "more thorough than any country we have looked at," says Makiya, who praises the Stasi Records Act. The unique law, passed by the German Bundestag in 1991, regulates the access of both victims of spying and former spies to their files and has become a reference point for lawmakers from Bucharest to Bratislava ever since. The law, for example, allows people who were spied on to view their dossiers. They can find out who spied on them, but, to avert revengetaking, they are not given access to the spy's files.

"For us, there was no other model," says Mirsolav Lehky, a former Czech dissident and director of the Slovak Institute for Public Rememberance. "The [Birthler] law was the only one around."

Slovakia copied the records law almost word for word when drafting its own legislation in 2002. In the six months the institute has been open, 4,000 people have applied to look at their files, says Lehky.

Larger countries like Poland and the Czech Republic have been using the documents since the mid-1990s to prosecute former members of the communist regime - although, as in East Germany, there has been criticism that the effort has not resulted in enough convictions.

Both the Office for Investigation and Documentation of the Crimes of the Communists in Prague and the Institute for National Remembrance in Poland, have investigation wings that track injustices back to 1939. The two countries have already begun coordinating with the East German Stasi Archive, originally named the Gauck Authority after Joachim Gauck, a vicar who initiated public resistance against the communists and became the archive's first director in 1990. Areas of investigation include killings on their shared borders or the fate of foreign nationals arrested in their respective countries.

The progress in documentation is remarkable, considering the fierce political resistance against opening the files in many Eastern Bloc countries. Unlike the former German Democratic Republic, some communist countries - such as Hungary and Romania - couldn't simply dissolve their state security apparatus for fear of instability.

"The old institutions and people stayed the same, and were only modified," says Christian Booss, the Stasi Archive's spokesman. "The old spies sat on the secret files."

Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary all eventually passed laws opening up the secret service files in the 1990s. But the political will is inconsistent, say Birthler officials. Budgets are cut, access laws tightened or loosened depending on the whim of politicians. "There has been polite interest in cooperation, but the cooperation isn't very constant," says Mr. Booss.

In 2002, a Serbian nonprofit agency asked the Birthler Archive for help in drafting a law. After ideas were exchanged and a bill drafted, contact was broken off. The group didn't show up to a meeting last fall of the Warsaw Pact archivists in Romania.

Archive directors in former Eastern Bloc countries hope the European Union's expansion eastward this May changes attitudes. Many of the new members are former Warsaw Pact countries, and the EU insisted on membership criteria requiring the governments of former Eastern Bloc countries to confront their communist past. The idea is for such a re-examination to lead to the formation of a "common community of values," says Booss.

Iraq hopes for the same, says Makiya. At a recent press conference in Berlin, the former exile alluded to Germany's position after both World War II and the cold war in explaining the situation Iraq finds itself in. Reconstruction is not only necessary in Iraqi cities, but in Iraqi minds as well. "An archive like this," says Makiya, "will change the way Iraqis think of themselves in an infinitely better way."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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