Convicted in a show trial that certainly appeared to have been timed to
finish on the eve of last month's US elections, Iraqi President Saddam
Hussein was hanged in a show execution that just as certainly seems to
have been timed to be carried out before the end of the worst year of
the Iraq War.
Hussein was a bad player -- a totalitarian dictator who, with tacit approval from the U.S. and other western nation during the 1980s, killed his own people and waged a mad war with Iran. He needed to be held to account. But even bad players deserve fair trials, honest judgments and justly-applied punishments. The former dictator got none of these.
According to Human
Rights Watch, which has a long and honorable history of documenting
and challenging the abuses of Hussein's former government, the
execution early Saturday morning followed "a deeply flawed trial" and
"marks a significant step away from respect for human rights and the
rule of law in Iraq."
"The test of a government's commitment to human rights is measured by
the way it treats its worst offenders," says Richard Dicker, director
of Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program. "History will
judge these actions harshly."
For fifteen years, Human Rights Watch had demanded that Hussein be
brought to justice for what the group has rightly described as "massive
human rights violations." But the group argues that Hussein was not
brought to justice.
In addition to objecting at the most fundamental level to the use of
the barbaric practice of state-sponsored execution--which is outlawed
by the vast majority of the world's nations--Human Rights Watch notes
that Hussein was killed before being tried for some of his most
well-documented acts of brutality.
The group notes the trial that did take place was fundamentally
A niney-seven-page report by Human Rights Watch, issued late last month, details the severe
problems with the trial. The report, based on close monitoring of the
prosecution of the former president, found that:
- "(The) Iraqi High Tribunal was undermined from the outset by Iraqi
government actions that threatened the independence and perceived
impartiality of the court."
- The Iraqi administrators, judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers
lacked sufficient training and expertise "to fairly and effectively try
crimes of this magnitude."
- The government did not protect defense lawyers--three of whom were
killed during the trial--or key witnesses.
- "(There were) serious flaws in the trial, including failures to
disclose key evidence to the defense, violations of the defendants'
right to question prosecution witnesses, and the presiding judge's
demonstrations of bias."
- "Hussein's defense lawyers had 30 days to file an appeal from the
November 5 verdict. However, the trial judgment was only made available
to them on November 22, leaving just two weeks to respond."
The report did not study the appeals process, But the speed with which
the tribunal's verdict and sentence were confirmed suggests that the
Iraqi Appeals Chamber failed to seriously consider the legal arguments
advanced by Hussein's able--if violently harassed--legal team.
"It defies imagination that the Appeals Chamber could have thoroughly
reviewed the 300-page judgment and the defense's written arguments in
less than three weeks' time," said Dicker. "The appeals process appears
even more flawed than the trial."
There will, of course, be those who counter criticism of the process by
pointing out that Saddam Hussein did not give the victims of his cruel
dictates fair trials or just sentences. That is certainly true.
But such statements represent a stinging indictment of the new Iraqi
government and its judiciary. With all the support of the United States
government, with massive resources and access to the best legal advice
in the world, with all the lessons of the past, Iraq has a legal system
that delivers no better justice than that of Saddam Hussein's
This is the ugly legacy of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq: An
awful mess of a country that cannot even get the trial and punishment
of deposed dictator right, a justice system that schedules the taking
of life for political and propaganda purposes, a thuggishly brutal
state that executes according to whim rather than legal standard.
According to Britain's Telegraph newspaper, "There was no
comment from the White House, which was determined that the execution
should appear to be an Iraqi event." The central role played by the US
government in the process was not lost on the Telegraph, however, as
the newspaper noted that: "the transfer of Saddam from American to
Iraqi custody meant his death was imminent."
The term "transfer" is of course being used in a loose sense, as
Hussein was hung not in an Iraqi prison but within the
American-controlled Green Zone in central Baghdad.
Now that the killing is done, the governments of Iraq and the United
States have confirmed what may have been the worst fear of those who
condemned both Saddam Hussein and the US invasion and occupation that
removed him from power. The crude lawlessness of Hussein has been
replaced by the calculated lawlessness of a new regime.
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is currently the editor of the editorial page of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times. Nichols is the author of two books: It's the Media, Stupid and Jews for Buchanan.