Saddam’s end: yes, it was an atrocity
On the morning that Saddam Hussein was killed (I think 'executed' should be reserved for the culmination of something resembling due process), I said in a private e-mail to a few friends:
The gruesome videos of Saddam before and after are at http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/meast/12/30/hussein/index.html
(needs Windows Media Player 9.0 or later, and it works in Internet Explorer but not apparently in Mozilla Firefox).
He was an authentic villain and criminal, but he showed great courage (it seems to me) both at his trial and immediately before his execution, notwithstanding some of the allegations by witnesses of the latter.
"Our respect for human rights requires us to execute him…" Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq prime minister, quoted in FT 30.xii.06.
Yet another atrocity.
Two judicious and moderate recipients of my message have politely reproached me for describing the hanging of Saddam Hussein as an atrocity. Further reflection has however confirmed me in the view that the description was and is amply justified.
Like all civilised people in the western world, I regard all forms of capital punishment as disgusting and unacceptable: I wouldn't think it an exaggeration to call every such killing an atrocity, although I certainly meant much more than that in this case. There were at least ten separate elements that in combination add up to something properly described as atrocious:
1. The American government was plainly responsible, along with the Shia-dominated government which they sustain (the question of legitimacy through election is for another day) for the trial, verdict, sentence and its execution (in the purely literal sense). The tribunal, specially tailor-made for Saddam and his co-defendants, was originally established by decree of Paul Bremer when US Pro-Consul administering Iraq. Under international law, the occupying power has no right to change the pre-existing laws of a country in this way. The court had no legitimacy from the beginning.
2. The charge against Saddam, i.e. that he was guilty of crimes against humanity, should plainly have been heard in an international tribunal of some kind under clearly specified legal statutes defining the powers, rights and roles of the court, the defendant and the prosecution. It seems to me obvious that the main reason for US resistance to this was that it would have been impossible to assemble an international panel of reputable judges for a court empowered to impose the death sentence: and the Americans were determined to have the man killed. (But see also (8) below.)
3. The trial was a travesty. As all the reputable human rights groups have pointed out, the political pressure on the first judge was so intense that he resigned; two defence lawyers were murdered; the defence was given wholly inadequate time to study the mass of detailed prosecution evidence or to call witnesses to rebut it; the proceedings often degenerated into vulgar slanging matches. The presence of television and film cameras and microphones confirmed the status of the process as a show trial. There were similar defects in the 'appeal' process. To kill a defendant on the basis of such a charade was grotesque.
4. Even if the conduct of the trial had been impeccable, everyone concerned — judge, defence and prosecution lawyers, Saddam, world opinion — knew in advance that the results were pre-ordained. To pretend that a fair trial can be conducted on such a basis is simple hypocrisy. (To pre-empt the likely retort that this reasoning would apply equally to the Nuremburg trials, I would reply that I condemn the executions of the Nazi war criminals as unacceptable and dishonourable 'victors' justice', while accepting the value to posterity of the trials themselves as an essential procedure for establishing in detail what had actually been done during the Nazi era. For the contrast with the Saddam trial, see (5).)
5. The only acceptable purpose of putting Saddam on trial would have been to establish a detailed and incontrovertible record for all the world to see (including his hundreds of thousands of victims and their families) of the appalling crimes committed by this mass murderer and torturer. No attempt was made to establish such a full record: Saddam's sole conviction was for one of the less grotesque of his crimes, and the haste with which he was almost immediately put to death for it has prevented any possibility of a judicial process to get the rest of his iniquities on the record. It's no exaggeration to say that the Kurds and the Iranians, for example, have thereby been robbed of the justice due to them.
6. At the time when Saddam was committing some of the worst of his crimes, he was being actively supported by the United States and its allies who were even supplying him with some of the wherewithal for committing them. The nature of his régime and his lavish employment of gas, torture and repression were well known to western capitals at the time. He was supported then in part as a bulwark against violent and extreme anti-western Islamism — which he continued to be until he was overthrown by his former patrons in 2003. He was also an effective enemy of al-Qaida terrorism: Osama will have rejoiced at his extinction. Moreover, even the US, and yet more explicitly its co-conspirator, the British government, pretended throughout the run-up to their illegal attack on Iraq that their purpose was not to overthrow this evil dictator but to force him to give up his weapons of mass destruction. President Bush's final ultimatum to Saddam offered him and his sons the opportunity to leave Iraq by a given deadline in order to avert military action against their country; Mr Blair went further, publicly asserting that Saddam could remain in office if only he would obey UN resolutions and disarm. For either of them to turn round only a few months later, after their avowed casus belli had proved to be groundless, and say that Saddam was such a monster that only his death could satisfy the demands of Iraqi justice (Blair's foreign minister adding primly that of course Britain didn't hold with capital punishment, but that was a matter for the Iraqis) is enough to turn the stomach. Bush's announcement that the hanging represented "a step on the road to democracy" is, if anything, even more sickening.
7. Not only did the trial and appeal fail to satisfy the most elementary requirements of due process: the American-led occupiers lacked the moral (and possibly also the legal) legitimacy to preside over and arrange the repulsive outcome. It was bad enough to launch an illegal attack on a sovereign state, however repressive its recognised government, and to substitute a new régime of local people more or less subservient to the occupiers and largely bent on sectarian revenge for their past wrongs at Saddam's hands: to capture the former head of state, put him through a farcical show trial and then kill him, lacked any kind of moral legitimacy, a legitimacy that could have been achieved only by handing him over for trial and punishment to a properly constituted authority established by a UN organ.
8. On the face of it, the Americans' rigid determination to preserve their own sole custody of Saddam throughout his captivity, and even throughout a trial which purported to be by and for Iraqis, until only a couple of hours before he was killed, looks decidedly fishy, especially as it exposed the falsity of the pretence that the whole thing was Iraqi-inspired and Iraqi-organised. What seems the likeliest explanation for this determined US control right to the end? We shall never know, I suppose; but it's not easy to overlook that film clip of Donald Rumsfeld, at that time head of the multinational pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle & Co., smilingly and respectfully shaking the bloodstained hand of the dictator when visiting Baghdad in December 1983 on a mission —
'to establish "direct contact between an envoy of President Reagan and President Saddam Hussein," while emphasizing "his close relationship" with the president… Rumsfeld met with Saddam, and the two discussed regional issues of mutual interest, shared enmity toward Iran and Syria, and the U.S.'s efforts to find alternative routes to transport Iraq's oil; its facilities in the Persian Gulf had been shut down by Iran, and Iran's ally, Syria, had cut off a pipeline that transported Iraqi oil through its territory. Rumsfeld made no reference to chemical weapons, according to detailed notes on the meeting…'
Considering this and other evidence of active US support for Saddam in his self-inflicted struggle with Iran and the Kurds, it's clear that Saddam "knew where the bodies were buried" in more senses than one; that if he had been given half a chance in further, more extensive trials, or if transferred from American to international custody, he would have spilled some very embarrassing and incriminating beans about the roles played by some of those now bent on having him killed. Is it not at the very lowest plausible that this was the reason for trying him on charges which didn't involve evidence about supplies of gas and other weapons by the west, for cutting short his trials on any other, wider charges, for keeping him in US custody until the very last minute, and for the absolute insistence that at the end of the process Saddam must be killed, not sentenced by some international tribunal to life-long exile and incarceration? If this wasn't at least part of the explanation, what better explanation is there?
9. As more details of Saddam's last minutes begin to seep out, supported by both the official and some unofficial videos and superseding the official line put out by one of the official witnesses (according to whom Saddam was an obviously "broken man", "fear in his face" at every step as he was led to the gallows, all definitively contradicted even by the officially released film), it becomes clear that one or more of the hangmen in their ski-masks were taunting and shouting insults at Saddam even as they took him to his death, and that Saddam was replying in kind, with the defiance that he had exhibited throughout the trial. This hideous behaviour by the executioners makes the cold-blooded killing of a living, healthy, vigorous human being even more obscene.
10. Even on the lowest calculus of political expediency, and even allowing for Iraqi and other Arab attitudes towards capital punishment and the treatment of one's defeated enemies, this was a patently counter-productive deed connived at by a government purportedly committed to national reconciliation and the end of inter-sectarian violence, egged on by an occupying power that still pretends that the purpose of its occupation is to restore human rights to Iraq and to guide the country to democracy. To carry out the killing at the beginning of an Islamic sacred festival compunded the divisiveness of the act.
In short, the killing of Saddam raises profound doubts about its morality, legality, and political expediency, and unavoidable suspicions about the true motives of its perpetrators. It combined elements of farce, charade, hypocritical pretence and tragedy.
I know of no better description of this disgusting event and its incriminating background than that by Robert Fisk in The Independent of 30 December 2006, obligatory reading in full — but here's a sample (hat-tip: once again, to David Tothill):
No, Tony Blair is not Saddam. We don't gas our enemies. George W Bush is not Saddam. He didn't invade Iran or Kuwait. He only invaded Iraq. But hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians are dead — and thousands of Western troops are dead — because Messrs Bush and Blair and the Spanish Prime Minister and the Italian Prime Minister and the Australian Prime Minister went to war in 2003 on a potage [sic] of lies and mendacity and, given the weapons we used, with great brutality.
In the aftermath of the international crimes against humanity of 2001 we have tortured, we have murdered, we have brutalised and killed the innocent — we have even added our shame at Abu Ghraib to Saddam's shame at Abu Ghraib — and yet we are supposed to forget these terrible crimes as we applaud the swinging corpse of the dictator we created.
Who encouraged Saddam to invade Iran in 1980, which was the greatest war crime he has committed[,] for it led to the deaths of a million and a half souls? And who sold him the components for the chemical weapons with which he drenched Iran and the Kurds? We did. No wonder the Americans, who controlled Saddam's weird trial, forbad[e] any mention of this, his most obscene atrocity, in the charges against him. Could he not have been handed over to the Iranians for sentencing for this massive war crime? Of course not. Because that would also expose our culpability.
If all this doesn't add up to "another atrocity", it's hard to imagine what does. No, I don't apologise for the word.
 The official account of all this in the National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 82 of February 25, 2003 is well worth reading. There is also a link here to the video clip of Rumsfeld's call, as President Reagan's official envoy, on Saddam in 1983 (Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player required).
Update (11 January): A friend has helpfully pointed me at Robert Fisk's characteristically eloquent article in the Independent of 6 January which makes many of the same points. I part company with Fisk on only one thing: I believe that the objectionable features of the hanging of Saddam are objectionable regardless of one's views on capital punishment generally. Fisk's final sentences seem to suggest that the objections to this specific hanging are bound up with wider objections to capital punishment in general.