Death for a Dictator
By: Jacob Laksin
Thursday, December 28, 2006

Iraq's Court of Appeals sends Saddam to the gallows.
Let us now praise the Iraqi legal system. Scorned by international watchdog organizations and self-credentialed legal minds since its establishment in 2003 as a newly independent institution, it has now done something that the international community’s premier courts have consistently failed to do: punished, in a reasonable timeframe, a mass murderer and delivered justice to his victims.

Back in November, it may be recalled, Iraq's High Tribunal judged Saddam Hussein guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to hang for the 1982 massacre of 148 Shi’ites in the city of Dujail. Initial concerns about an interminable appeals process have proved groundless, as that verdict has now been upheld by Iraq's Court of Appeals. That means the deposed dictator must swing from the gallows by the close of a 30-day period. Mere days now separate his neck from the noose.


How Saddam must envy the late Slobodan Milosevic. Although the Serbian strongman faced a far more comprehensive indictment – prosecutors charged him with 66 counts of genocide compared to the mere six charges against Saddam – he succeeded in delaying justice for four agonizing years before denying it altogether after succumbing, last March, to a heart ailment. When it was subsequently revealed that Milosevic had longed to see the completion of his trial, it came as no surprise: the “Butcher of the Balkans” must have favored his chances against the feckless UN International Criminal Tribunal.


Saddam, to be sure, did everything in his power to reproduce Milosevic’s coup. In the defiant style of Milosevic before him, he harassed witnesses, interrupted trial proceedings, denounced Iraqi jurors as stooges of the occupation forces, insisted on acting in his own defense, and generally exerted himself to the twin tasks of assailing the court’s legitimacy and stoking Sunni anger.


In these efforts he was enthusiastically abetted by the familiar forces on the transnational Left. Ramsey Clark, fresh from his role as co-chair of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, the coalition of anti-American radicals and Serb apparatchiks that hailed the people’s tyrant (as Serbian writer Vidosav Stevanovic aptly dubbed him) as a heroic socialist “freedom fighter,” joined Saddam’s defense team and even likened him to Milosevic – high praise indeed. Both men, Clark explained, “were courageous enough to fight more powerful countries.”


Iraqi jurors, to their credit, proved far less tolerant of Clark’s provocations than their Western counterparts. When Clark attempted to turn Saddam’s November sentencing into a crude referendum on the trial itself, Chief Judge Raouf Abdul Rahman promptly dismissed him as a “mockery” and evicted him from the courtroom. If there were any remaining doubts about the wisdom of the Iraqi court, this should have put them to rest.


Not that self-styled human rights groups were willing to give credit where it was due. Before the first gavel fell to open the trial, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch had alleged that its proceedings were unfair and that its verdict would be irreparably flawed. But the widespread attention such charges attracted in the press was in inverse proportion to their merit. Consider that the most serious charge leveled against the trial – that it failed to protect witnesses and defense lawyers – hardly skewed the outcome in Saddam’s favor and was in any case a more convincing indictment of the security situation in the country than the procedural aspects of the trial.


But no amount of hand-wringing over the integrity of the trial could mask the real motivation of the critics. It was the fact that Iraqis refused to do adopt the “enlightened” view of the international community and do away with the death penalty. Thus Human Rights Watch lectured that the death penalty was an “inherently cruel and inhumane punishment.” As the conclusion of “unfair trial,” moreover, it was simply “indefensible.” That Saddam had filled mass graves with thousands of Iraqis; that he had terrorized the region; that he had sponsored Palestinian terror proxies and coordinated with al-Qaeda operatives – these, presumably, were technicalities of no great consequence.


Amnesty International, not to be outdone, greeted news of Saddam’s sentence with an outraged press release: “Amnesty International deplores death sentences in Saddam Hussein trial.” Not only did the benighted Iraqis insist on imposing the death penalty, but they resisted all “conformity with international standards.” Of course, given the dubious legacy of such standards, one is tempted to count this as another point in the Iraqi court’s favor.

In historical perspective, what the Iraqi tribunal accomplished is nothing short of extraordinary. In the span of a mere four years, a legal system that was once the preserve of Ba’athist ministers, operating as an official organ for the regime‘s oppression, has been transformed into a modern judicial branch that is arguably one of the most transparent and impartial in the entire Middle East. Equally impressive is that this transformation has taken place amid relentless sectarian violence and a steady drumbeat of criticism from the ranks of high-minded activists. Most significant from this angle is not that the trial had its flaws – rare is the high-profile trial without its share of diversionary drama – but that, in contrast to the much-lauded international courts, those flaws did not prove fatal to the cause of justice.


Indeed, it now seems certain that the only fatalities the trial is likely to produce will be those of the dictator and his henchmen. It’s a safe bet that this won’t please the usual suspects, but then it is not supposed to: the days when Iraqi courts slavishly served a political agenda have passed into history. Shortly it will be Saddam’s turn.

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