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1/8/07

How Can Flawed Trial, Execution of ex-leader Promote Democracy?

By R.K. Ramazani

 

The flawed trial and execution of Saddam Hussein deal a heavy blow to the Bush administration’s goal of creating a “new Middle East” based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law.

 

Hussein’s brutal reign was marked by crimes against humanity — wars of aggression against Iran and Kuwait, indiscriminate killing of Iraqi Shias and mass killings of Iraqi Kurds — that mirrored those of his role model, Stalin. Yet, a show trial and indecent execution are unlikely to persuade Iraqis, and others in the Middle East, that the Bush administration and the current Iraqi government offer a better way.

 

The United States invaded Iraq alone, without international authorization, and captured Saddam Hussein, holding him in military custody for three years. The U.S. Department of Justice created the Regime Crime Liaison Office and the U.S. helped organize, fund, advise and even decide some facets of the work of the High Tribunal, which convicted the Iraqi leader.

 

The 30-month legal process was marred throughout — by sectarian partiality, the killing of three defense lawyers, threats against the lives of judges and repeated disruptions from what has become a civil war.

 

The trial focused on crimes against humanity, particularly, the killing of 148 Shia teenage boys and men in Dujail in 1982. Lost in the proceedings was his greater crime of genocide committed against 180,000 Kurds killed by mustard gas in Halabjah in 1988. Where in the proceedings was justice for the Kurds?

 

Hussein’s execution was carried out without full regard for Iraqi law. The execution decree requires the signature of the Iraqi president together with two vice-presidents. But President Jalal Talebani, who does not believe in the death sentence on principle, refused to sign it, though he did not object to it.

 

The execution also was conducted in haste and in a way guaranteed to nurture a sense of injustice among Sunnis. The Iraqi court of appeal decreed a death sentence with a deadline of 30 days, but the sentence was carried out only a few days later. And while the Iraqi constitution, which follows Islamic custom, prohibits execution on holy days, the execution was carried out on Id al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice — and on the day celebrated by the Sunnis.

 

 Similar to the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Hebrew Torah and the Christian Bible, Id al-Adha commemorates the story in the Muslim Qur’an in which Prophet Abraham showed his willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael for God, but was spared from doing so when a goat appeared. The feast is celebrated by the slaughter of a goat, a lamb, or a camel. Because of the way Hussein’s execution was carried out, some supporters of the ruthless dictator now view him as a sacrificial lamb.

 

The trial also failed to uphold the minimal civilities associated with sentencing, even for those who have committed heinous crimes. Hussein was denied his wish to be executed by firing squad rather than by hanging, in effect, disregarding humanitarian criminal justice.

 

To add insult to injury, the executioners of Hussein, a Sunni, were Shia. Amidst a chaotic hanging process they began shouting — “Moktada! Moktada! Moktada!” — a reference to the firebrand, anti-American and anti-Sunni Shia cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

 

There are two profound lessons for the Iraqi and American governments in this pitiful chapter of history. To build a new and democratic Iraq, the Iraqi government must control the damage that has already been done to its plan of reconciliation between the Shia and Sunni sects. Sunni Muslims inside and outside Iraq view the treatment of Hussein by the Shia-dominated government as an act, not of justice, but of revenge. More than ever, the Iraqi government must show respect for the rights of the Sunni and other minorities under the Iraqi constitution. It also would do well to show the tolerance commanded by the holy Qur’an.

 

The U.S. government bears a degree of responsibility for the failure of the Iraqi government to comply honorably with the law by its own failure to understand the requirements for transition to democracy in Iraq. The transition from authoritarianism to democracy in any society requires more than just institution building. Writing a constitution, holding elections and creating a permanent government are no guarantee that democratic practices will follow. More than two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson understood this: for a society to transition to democracy it must embrace the values of a democracy — including justice, the rule of law and respect for human dignity.

 

Jefferson also recognized that setting a good example was one of the best ways to spread democracy — and that the opposite was also true. President Bush’s goal of creating a “new Middle East,” based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law, cannot be achieved without a deep and sincere commitment to reliance on American principles as well as American power.

 

The death penalty seems to contradict the right to life guaranteed both by the American Declaration of Independence and international human rights law. There can be no power without principle, no justice without the rule of law and none of these without liberty.

 

About the author: The author is the Edward R. Stettinius Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia. He has published extensively on the Middle East and specializes in international law and diplomacy.

 

This article was first published by Charlottesville Daily Progress.

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