Justice Served
By: Jacob Laksin
Monday, November 06, 2006

A hangman's noose awaits the Butcher of Baghdad.
Last December, in the course of one of his inveterate harangues to the Iraqi tribunal adjudicating his fate, Saddam Hussein haughtily demanded, “Why don't you just execute us?” Twelve months, much agonizing deliberation, and countless courtroom theatrics later, the toppled tyrant may finally get his wish.

The same tribunal whose authority he defied at every turn yesterday sentenced Saddam and his co-defendants -- Barzam Ibrahim, his half-brother and former intelligence chief, and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, the former head of Iraq's Revolutionary Court, a body that targeted Saddam’s political opponents and other “enemies of the people” -- to death by hanging.


The sentence caps Saddam’s conviction for ordering the execution-style killings of 148 men and boys from the village of Dujail, just outside of Baghdad, in the wake of an ill-fated assassination attempt against him in 1982.  Provided an appellate court upholds the tribunal’s sentence, Saddam will meet the justice he denied untold thousands throughout his 24-year reign of terror.


One can only hope that the execution of the sentence will be more efficient than the trial that produced it. While the Iraqi tribunal proved more capable than critics alleged, it clearly has yet to absorb the ancient legal wisdom that justice must be swift as well as certain. From the minute the dictator strode into the courtroom, denouncing the judges as American and "Zionist" stooges and demanding deference as the “President of Iraq,” the trial was held hostage to his megalomaniacal whims.


As during his days in power, Saddam’s arrogance knew no bounds. He derided and intimidated witnesses. He delivered political speeches urging attacks on American troops. He instructed his defense team to boycott the trial. A particularly obscene moment came when Saddam, after listening to Dujail residents describe in harrowing detail their sufferings at the hands of his henchmen, complained that the court was devoting insufficient attention to his own deprivation in a prison cell. His victims get their say, Saddam sniffed, “but does anyone ask Saddam Hussein whether he was tortured? Whether he was hit?”


Such humanitarian concerns where conspicuously absent when Saddam green-lighted the massacre at Dujail, an atrocity that serves as powerful testimony to the brutality that marked his rule. After narrowly escaping an ambush by Shiite insurgents, Saddam retaliated by ordering the entire village bulldozed to the ground. Women and children were reportedly jailed, with men and younger boys rounded up for summary execution. Deeming ten of these boys, some as young as 11, too young to be slaughtered there and then, Saddam allowed them to rot in prison until they turned 18, the proper age of torment. Then he hanged them. Notably, Saddam made no effort to conceal his role in the mass executions. Asked during the trial to account for his actions, he coldly retorted, “Where is the crime?”


Iraqi jurors did not struggle with the answer. As for the prosecutors, in making Dujail the center of their case, they wisely calculated that they would have an easier time winning a conviction. But the strategy had a downside. By isolating this single (if by no means trivial) instance of the dictator’s brutality, they diverted to the margins the myriad crimes that made him a danger to the entire region, as well as his people, and shifted attention away from the more sinister ambitions that made the U.S.-led military action necessary in 2003.


Looming large in the former category are Saddam’s genocidal pogroms against the Kurds. Of these, the most shockingly brutal, the Anfal campaign of 1987 and 1988, is currently the subject of another trial against Saddam, in which he stands accused of crimes against humanity for the murder of over 100,000 Kurds. Although the campaign is remembered mainly for Saddam’s willingness to employ chemical weapons -- something that opponents of the Iraq war have assured us would be unfathomable for the supposedly pragmatic-minded dictator -- it also illustrates how casually he claimed human life: thousands of Kurds perished under firing squads, promptly to be dumped in pre-dug mass graves. It is thus an injustice, if primarily against the historical record, that Saddam may be executed before the verdict is handed down in the second trial.


Then, too, there remains Saddam’s unexplored role at the head of the Mukhabarat, his famously ruthless secret police. From what is already known about the Mukhabarat’s practices, especially their administration of Iraqi prisons, it can be stated definitively that the cruelties perpetrated by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib were a vast improvement on prison life under the Mukhabarat. In one sense, then, Saddam’s looming execution is too charitable: no more will he be held accountable for his dark reign.


Nor will Saddam have to answer for the threat he posed to the West. To be sure, that the threat was indeed real has already been confirmed by other sources. As the widespread corruption at the heart of the Oil-for-Food program made apparent, UN sanctions failed to dampen Saddam’s dreams of regional dominance while allowing his regime to profit at the Iraqi peoples’ expense: Saddam did $21.3 billion in illicit business by smuggling oil to neighboring nations and directing the revenue to, among other dubious channels, his undisclosed weapons programs. (The UN insists that it “had neither the authority nor the resources to prevent smuggling” -- this in its own defense.)


Scientists who defected from Saddam’s republic of fear, meanwhile, have confirmed that he was seeking to reconstitute his nuclear weapons program. In his book, Saddam's Bombmaker, the Iraqi nuclear scientist Khidhir Hamza has detailed how he “worked to build Saddam’s bomb,” before escaping in 1993. Finally, Iraq’s repeated refusal to allow international inspectors unrestricted access to weapons depots only confirmed the impression that the regime had something to hide. Nothing concentrates the mind so wonderfully as the prospect of being hanged, Dr. Johnson once observed, and it is a pity that Saddam may now take his secrets to his grave.


This is not to say that yesterday’s sentence is unwelcome. On the contrary, beyond delivering the consolation of justice to his Iraqi victims, the conclusion of the trial heralds several positive developments. First, at a time when Iraqi government ministries have become cesspools of corruption and sectarian combat, Iraq’s criminal justice system has proved itself above the fray. If anything, the presiding judges were unduly indulgent of Saddam’s histrionics, allowing him to carry on longer than any self-respecting court ought to have countenanced. At the same time, however, the judges have been committed to transparency. They have already promised to make public all the documents they used to determine Saddam’s sentence. What a far cry from the previous era, when handpicked judges ruled in accordance with Saddam’s declared legal philosophy: “The law is anything I write on a scrap of paper.”


Further proof of the tribunal's enlightenment: After Ramsey Clark, the radical former U.S. attorney general and current defense attorney for Saddam submitted a memo to Chief Judge Abdel-Rahman, in which he un-ironically denounced the proceedings as “a mockery of justice,” the judge noted that Clark had succeeded mainly in “ridiculing himself” and dismissed him as a “laughing stock,” before expelling him from the courtroom -- a fittingly shameful exit for the man who has rallied to the cause of dictators from Muammar Gaddafi to Slobodan Milosevic and who has richly earned the title of “war criminal's best friend.”


While Iraqis can derive satisfaction from the integrity of the court, the trial has also given the troops and their supporters something to celebrate. It is hardly surprising that Gold Star Families, a coalition of military families who have lost children in Iraq, joyfully embraced the verdict. A delegation of these families is now making a 10-day survey tour of the country. Among their number is Janet and Joseph Johnson, whose son, Army Spc. Justin Johnson, was killed outside of Baghdad in 2004. Johnson’s close friend was Casey Sheehan, son of protest-happy prima donna Cindy Sheehan. Absent their efforts, Saddam might be forging ahead with his nuclear program, instead of counting down his final days. Who better than a deposed dictator to remind us that these fine soldiers did not die in vain?

It may be too much to hope that Saddam’s death will deal a blow to the violence now rending the country. Yet few would dispute that his imminent end provides an opportunity for Iraq to look forward. Saddam was not given a choice in his fate -- he preferred a symbolic death by firing squad to being strung from the gallows “like a common criminal.” But Iraq, once again, is presented with a choice about its future.

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Jacob Laksin is managing editor of Front Page Magazine. His email is jlaksin -at- gmail.com