Victor's justice

Published : Jan 12, 2007 00:00 IST

A video grab taken from Al-Iraqiya television shows Saddam Hussein moments before being hanged. - DANIEL BEREHULAK/REUTERS

A video grab taken from Al-Iraqiya television shows Saddam Hussein moments before being hanged. - DANIEL BEREHULAK/REUTERS

Saddam Hussein's execution just five days after the appeals court upholds the lower court verdict comes in defiance of world opinion.

THE execution of Saddam Hussein, just five days after the decision of Iraq's highest appeals court on December 26 to uphold the death sentence passed by a lower court, did not come as a big surprise. Senior Iraqi government officials had predicted that he would be executed before the new year dawned. The execution at dawn on December 30 came after the Vatican and the United Nations appealed for clemency for the Iraqi leader. There were also requests from the governments of Yemen and Libya to spare Saddam's life. But all the pleas were in vain.

Iraqis present at the execution said that Saddam was defiant until the end, shouting patriotic slogans and carrying a Koran in his right hand. He did not allow the authorities to put a cape on his head before they tightened the noose around his neck.

There were enough indications from Washington and London that "victor's justice" would be carried out expeditiously. President George W. Bush, in a statement, has described the hanging as a "milestone in the politics of Iraq". The appeals court ruled that the sentence of death by hanging should be carried out within 30 days but the American-installed Iraqi government preferred to carry it out two days before the holy feast of Id. The feast symbolises the sacrifice of Prophet Ibrahim to Allah. Some Iraqi politicians and preachers who opposed Saddam have started characterising the hanging of Saddam as a gift from God. Such symbolism is bound to alienate further a significant section of the Iraqi populace.

Saddam on his part never had any illusions about the fate that awaited him. Before the sentencing by the lower court, he demanded that as President and commander-in-chief of the Iraqi Army he should be executed by a firing squad. There was no legal transfer of power from the Baath government to the American-installed government in Iraq after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. In a letter written after the initial sentencing by the lower court, which was released by his defence counsel Khalil al Dulaimi, Saddam said that he was going to the gallows as a "sacrifice" and expressed the hope that the Iraqi people would unite against their enemies. In what could be his last written communication, Saddam ended the letter by stating: "Long live Iraq, Long live Iraq. Long live Palestine and the mujahideen. God is great."

Dulaimi said that from the outset Saddam was convinced that he would be given the death sentence. Early last year, Dulaimi told the media: "He [Saddam] knows that the sentence has been issued from Washington, and if there is an even greater punishment than the death sentence, he will get it." In one exchange with the presiding judge in the lower court, Saddam said that the real fight was about Iraqi sovereignty and not about his fate. "When I speak, I speak like your brother. Your brother in Iraq and your brother in the nation. I am not afraid of execution. I realise that there is pressure on you and I regret that I have to confront one of my sons. But I am not doing it for myself. I'm doing it for Iraq. I'm not defending myself. But I am defending you," the former President said.

The death sentence was given for Saddam's alleged role in the killing of 148 members of the Shia population in 1982 in the southern Iraqi town of Dujail, following an assassination attempt on Saddam in the town. It was a time when Iraq was at war with Iran. An Iraqi commentator, reacting to Saddam's hanging, told the Western media that more than 150 people were dying on an average every day under American occupation and that the charges against Saddam were flimsy.

Saddam was also on trial facing charges of genocide connected with the campaign against the separatist Kurds during the last phase of the Iran-Iraq war in 1987-88. The American authorities saw to it that the Iraqi leader was never tried on more serious charges, especially those relating to the origins of the eight-year-old Iran-Iraq war, which cost the lives of more than a million people. The reasons are obvious. In the late 1970s and the early 1980s, Washington was in cahoots with Baghdad. The common enemy of both the governments at the time was the Islamic Revolution, which had captured power in Iran.

The international community and human rights groups reacted adversely to the sentence of hanging. They are even more livid at the haste with which the sentence has been carried out. Only the White House and some Shia parties in Iraq have welcomed the execution. The international community is almost unanimously of the view that the sentencing of Saddam is a blatant illustration of `victor's justice'. Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch said that imposing the death penalty "was especially wrong after such unfair court proceedings". The spokeswoman for Amnesty International said that her organisation was against the death penalty as a matter of principle "but particularly in this case because it comes after a flawed trial".

Under Articles 64 and 67 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the trial had no legal standing. Sara Flounders of the New York-based International Action Centre said that since the days of the Roman Empire, "victor's justice has meant humiliation, degradation and placing the defeated leader in the dock in order to establish a new order. It hides the brutality of overwhelming force and gives legitimacy to the new rulers". The court that tried Saddam was funded by the U.S. to the tune of $75 million.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had cautioned the Iraqi authorities against carrying out the death sentence. He had warned that the sectarian rifts would widen further. The minority Sunnis still consider Saddam their leader. Most of the insurgency in Iraq is conducted by the Baathists. Before the invasion, Saddam had formulated plans for a guerilla war.

Events on the ground have shown that without the concurrence of Sunnis, peace will remain elusive in Iraq. The Baath Party, in a statement posted on the web, said that it would retaliate against American interests everywhere if the sentence on Saddam was carried out. "The American administration will be held responsible for any harm inflicted on the President, because the United States is the decision maker in Iraq and not the puppet Iraqi government," the statement warned.

In India, a Ministry of External Affairs spokesman expressed the hope that "no steps are taken which might obstruct the process of reconciliation and delay the restoration of peace in Iraq". External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said that "such life-and-death decisions require the credible due process of law, which does not appear to be victor's justice and is acceptable to the people of Iraq as well as the international community". The Communist Party of India (Marxist) condemned the verdict, stating that no fair trial was possible under American occupation; it described the hanging as a case of "judicial assassination".

A few days before the execution, a report presented by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said that an all-out international effort was needed to prevent Iraq from becoming a "failed and fragmented state". It warned that if the Shia-Sunni conflict continued unchecked, the civil war could draw in forces from neighbouring countries. "Hollowed-out and fatally weakened, the Iraqi state today is prey to armed militias, sectarian forces and a political class that, by putting short-term benefits ahead of long-term national interests, is complicit in Iraq's tragic destruction," the ICG report noted. The ICG is of the view that the challenge in Iraq is not a military one. "It is a political challenge in which new consensual understandings need to be reached," it said. The execution will make this even more difficult.

There are stories in the Western and Arab media about Saudi Arabia's decision to help Sunni compatriots in Iraq. In a raid by British forces on an Iraqi security post in late December, two Iranian advisers were captured. Sections of the Iraqi political establishment said they were in Basra at the government's invitation.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon, in its latest quarterly report, has conceded that violence in Iraq has reached the highest level recorded so far. There was an average of 959 attacks by the Resistance every week in the last four months, an increase of 22 per cent. There are many people even in the U.S. who are of the opinion that the Pentagon may be erring on the side of caution in reporting the scale of violence. The Chairman of the Iraq Study Group, former Secretary of State James Baker, has said that there is "significant under-reporting of violence in Iraq" by the American occupation forces. As for the Iraqi government, its writ barely runs beyond the highly fortified "green zone" in Baghdad.

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