Saddam executed; historical memory betrayed

Sadam Hussein was hanged in the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 30 for crimes against humanity in the mass murder of 148 men and boys from the Shi’ite town of Dujail in 1982, after a failed assassination attempt against him there. Also hanged were Awad Haman Bandar, the former chief justice of the Revolutionary Court, and Saddam’s half-brother Barzan Ibrahim. Four other co-defendants received prison terms ranging from 15 years to life. While President Bush called the execution a milestone on Iraq’s road to democracy, Human Rights Watch denounced it, calling Saddam’s trial “deeply flawed.”

Rights groups were nearly unanimous in their condemnation of the execution. “The test of a government’s commitment to human rights is measured by the way it treats its worst offenders. History will judge these actions harshly,” said Richard Dicker, director of the New York-based International Justice Program.

The “rush to execution” in Saddam’s case stands in contrast to the Allied powers’ handling of the war crimes tribunals after World War II, said Curt Goering, deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA. “We look back on the Nuremberg trials as a model,” he said. “We’re likely 60 years from now…to see this as victor’s justice.” (AP, Dec. 30)

The ex-dictator’s execution is most dangerous because it now precludes the possibility that he will ever receive a legitimate trial for his horrific crimes. The trial of Saddam was riddled with irregularities which would have made a mockery of justice under any circumstances. But worse still, the law which established the trial in the first place was promulgated by the US occupation authority before Iraq had even been granted “sovereignty.” To the end, Saddam was held by US military authorities despite his supposed transfer to Iraqi “custody.” The execution of Saddam will forever be tainted by these facts, and however much the survivors may now be cheering, there will never be true justice for the victims of his countless atrocities.

We have a sneaking suspicion that the rush to execute was partially motivated by the fear that Saddam could become a rallying point for the Sunni insurgents and that he could actually wind up back in power again. As is often the case, the executioners may have wound up creating exactly what they fear. Saddam may become more powerful in death than he was, broken and humiliated, at the end of his life.

The execution smacks far more of sectarian vengeance than justice. Sadam was executed on the day Sunnis celebrate Eid al-Adha, the holy day marking the end of the Mecca pilgrimage period or hajj (Shi’ites, significantly, celebrate it the following day). On Eid al-Adha, a sheep is traditionally slaughtered as a symbol of Ibrahim’s near-sacrifice of his son, the meat shared among family members and the poor. The implicit dehumanization of Saddam, and the insult to the Sunnis, is not subtle—or, we judge, intended to be.

The choice of Dujail as the first crime to try Saddam for also seems to be a settling of old political scores. As Iraq scholar Juan Cole wrote in an on-line commentary for Salon:

When Saddam visited Dujail, Dawa agents attempted to assassinate him. In turn, he wrought a terrible revenge on the town’s young men. Current Prime Minister al-Maliki is the leader of the Dawa Party and served for years in exile in its Damascus bureau. For a Dawa-led government to try Saddam, especially for this crackdown on a Dawa stronghold, makes it look to Sunni Arabs more like a sectarian reprisal than a dispassionate trial for crimes against humanity.

We had hoped that the voices of the Kurds would be brought to bear, delaying the execution at least until Saddam could be convicted on the far greater acts of mass murder carried out in his 1988 “Anfal” counter-insurgency campaign in Kurdistan. Now, as Amnety’s Goering told the AP, the world has “missed a huge opportunity to establish the record of history.”

And while Hassan (“Chemical Ali”) al-Majid and five other former Saddam henchmen remain on trial for the Kurdish genocide, we suspect the US wanted to avoid a high-profile Saddam trial for the Anfal campaign because (as we have pointed out repeatedly) the US was actively supporting Saddam Hussein at the time it was carried out.

Perhaps worst of all, the affair could loan legitimacy to Saddam’s pathetically transparent last-minute calls for ethnic reconciliation (which we noted as our December quote-of-the-month). Bush’s hubristic, blundering adventure in Iraq has plunged the country into such an ultra-dystopian situation that many Iraqis—especially, but perhaps not exclusively Sunnis—are already viewing the late despot with nostalgia. We’re reminded of the closing passage from Jason Tomes’ biography of Albania’s tyrannical inter-war monarch, King Zog of Albania (NYU 2003):

Soon Albanians will be able to look more dispassionately at their history in the twentieth century: liberation, instability, occupation, instability, Zogist dictatorship, occupation, civil war, Stalinist dictatorship, and more instability. When they do, they may well count the reign of King Zog among the good times. It is a sobering thought.

See our last posts on Iraq and the trial of Sadam Hussein.