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How to make a martyr out of a monster
Iraq: A lesson in abject political failure


January 5, 2007

Revolutions happen when reforms are ineffective.  Violence breaks out when reasoning is weak.  Wars occur as a result of failure of diplomacy.  And when the state kills, it only demonstrates the poverty of its political leadership or legitimacy. 

Eliminating people, in the form of execution, is either because the person poses a danger, or it is inspired by a sense of revenge.  The first puts a question mark on the leadership or legitimacy of the government, and the second deprives it of the claim of moral authority.  In either case, the government has shown its inability to use politics as a means of promoting harmony in the society (polity) and reducing tension and violence in human interactions.

Saddam Hussein was a monster and responsible for countless crimes against humanity.  Justice demanded that he be tried and punished accordingly.  But killing him was only an act of revenge, and had nothing to do with justice.  And like all revenge killings, it can only lead to more hatred and division, and to calls for more blood.  Those who made the political decision (yes, it was a political decision) to kill him have shown how poor politicians they are.

To start with, Saddam was an international criminal (suspect) - not only because his victims were not confined to the Iraqis but included Iranians (to a large extent) and Kuwaitis too, but also because crime against humanity is essentially an international crime.   When the rein of a dictator comes to an end, the trial and punishment of the dictator poses a dilemma.  Justice demands that the dictator be tried in an independent court by independent judges/jury.  But the new rulers are usually the adversaries and sufferers, and by definition, are plaintiffs of the deposed dictator.  As such, they could in no sense of justice act as independent judges or jury.  For this very reason (and because in the case of Saddam, he had international plaintiffs too) he should have been handed over to an international tribunal from the very beginning.

Trying Saddam in an international criminal court would not only have meant for justice to be done but also seen to be done.  In the war-torn Iraq where sectarian killings go on on a large scale, trying Saddam by a Shia-dominated government and judiciary system was bound to be viewed by the Sunni Arabs as unfair and biased.  That is to say, no matter how the Iraqi government conducted the trial, it could have never be viewed as fair and unbiased by a large section of the society.  Trying Saddam in an Iraqi court served only to inflame the sectarian divide in the country - with all its horrific consequences. 

Trying Saddam in an international criminal court would have also guaranteed that all the claims against him be heard.  Death penalty was no option, and so he would go through all the charges against him until they were exhausted – or (as the case was with Milosevic) until he died.  Here, all victims and plaintiffs of Saddam would have had the chance of being dealt with fairly, and as the court would hear all the evidence, step by step his true crimes could have become evident even to his ardent supporters.  In other words, those who had labelled (with some justification) the trial in Iraq as a political show and disregarded the evidence presented there as fabricated, would have been less able to do so in the case of the international trial when faced with both the volume and range of evidence given there.

The trial in Baghdad provided none of these.  It dealt only with one of the (relatively) minor crimes of Saddam.  It failed to hear the more serious charges related to gassing of Kurds in Halabche and of Iranian troops in the war.  It was politically interfered with when judges were replaced by political authorities.   It also failed to provide security for lawyers acting for Saddam.  And worst of all, it sentenced him to death – and carried out the death sentence too in haste.

Death sentence is an act of revenge and not justice.  Justice implies two things: one, that the perpetrator of a crime suffers for it, and that not only momentarily; and two, that the perpetrator of the crime is the main receiver of the punishment and not other people around them.  Death sentence is bereft of both these characteristics.  The suffering is limited to anxious times (waiting in anticipation for the execution) and the few moments that the person may suffer pain when the actual execution takes place.  However, the family and friends of the executed person are the real sufferers who had to suffer the consequences of losing a dear person for years to come. 

For the first, it can be said that the real punishment of those sentenced to death is the suffering they endure by just being on the death row.  In the case of Saddam Hussein, however, this lasted for less than 2 months (or less than a week since its confirmation).  This hardly counts as a fitting punishment for the heinous crimes he was accused of (and partly convicted).  As for the second, this is what the revenge is all about: killing someone plunges the family of the victim into great sorrow and sufferings for years to come; and it may be emotionally compensated by seeing that the family of the killer suffer the same as a result of execution.  Equality of sufferance: this is revenge and not justice.

And the most cowardly and politically disastrous act of the Iraqi government (and its American masters) was to carry out the death sentence at all.  Having sentenced Saddam to death in a flawed political trial was bad enough to inflame sectarian conflict.  However, killing him was actually the best New Year present that the government could give to the Sunni insurgents – and deprive itself of a bargaining chip in its dealing with them.  It could, for instance, negotiate with Saddam a deal by which he would cooperate in a reconciliation process to ease the sectarian tension in exchange for commuting his death sentence to life imprisonment.  Of course, he may not have initially accepted such an offer, but then it was a deal worth trying.  Imagine a Saddam having a meeting with top insurgents and asking (indeed, may be ordering) them to stop their rebellion.  At the same time, him staying alive would have given the opportunity to other plaintiffs and in particular the Kurds to peruse their claims against him and thereby denting his authority amongst his people as the gravity of his crimes in all their details were being revealed.

But it was not to be.  Instead of all these, the American-backed regime in Baghdad managed to create a martyr out of this monster – amongst the Sunnis across the Moslem world, from Indonesia, India and Pakistan to Palestine, Libya and Algeria.  They proved, by the video evidence splashed across TV screens all over the world, that his killing was an act of sectarian revenge and not justice.  They not only stripped themselves of a bargaining chip in their dealing with the insurgents, but also managed to annoy their Kurdish allies in the government and their Iranian co-religionists, on whose support the rely, by denying them their day in court.  No matter that they, and their American backers, still believe in the death penalty as proper way of administering justice (and carry out this gruesome act), they also proved totally inapt to govern a divided county like Iraq of today.

A living Saddam could have some positive use in the war-torn Iraq.  But a dead Saddam has risen to the status of a martyr – and could inspire sectarian killings not only in Iraq but right across the Moslem world.  Should this happen, it would be the most disastrous development since the US-lead attack against Iraq helped the Islamic fundamentalists with recruitment and ammunition.  And in any case, it would represent the spectacular failure of politics, as means of providing solutions, both in Baghdad and Washington.  And one wonders why the coalition which invaded Iraq, and their allies, did not insist from the very beginning that Saddam should be tried in an international tribunal, and in doing so avoid all these foreseeable consequences. Comment

Hossein Bagher Zadeh is a human rights activist and commentator on Iranian political and human rights issues. He is a spokesperson for Manshoor 81 (Charter 2003). His weekly column on Iranian affairs (in Persian) appears in Iran Emrooz and Iranian publications. He lives in England.

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